The “balance of nature” metaphor and equilibrium in population ecology

Biology and Philosophy 16 (4):463-479 (2001)
Abstract
I claim that the balance of nature metaphoris shorthand for a paradigmatic view of natureas a beneficent force. I trace the historicalorigins of this concept and demonstrate that itoperates today in the discipline of populationecology. Although it might be suspected thatthis metaphor is a pre-theoretic description ofthe more precisely defined notion ofequilibrium, I demonstrate that balance ofnature has constricted the meaning ofmathematical equilibrium in population ecology.As well as influencing the meaning ofequilibrium, the metaphor has also loaded themathematical term with values.Environmentalists and critics use thisconflation of meaning and value to theiradvantage. This interplay between the balanceof nature and equilibrium fits aninteractionist interpretation of the role ofmetaphor in science. However, it seems theinteraction is asymmetric, and the balance ofnature metaphor has had a larger influence onmathematical equilibrium than vice versa. Thisdisproportionate influence suggests that themetaphor was and continues to be a constitutivepart of ecological theories.
Keywords ecology  equilibrium  language  metaphor  science
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