Neither superorganisms nor mere species aggregates: Charles Elton’s sociological analogies and his moderate holism about ecological communities

History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 42 (2):1-27 (2020)
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This paper analyzes community ecologist Charles Elton’s ideas on animal communities, and situates them with respect to the classical opposition between organicist–holistic and individualistic–reductionist ecological views drawn by many historians of ecology. It is argued that Elton espoused a moderate ecological holism, which drew a middle way between the stricter ecological holism advocated by organicist ecologists and the merely aggregationist views advocated by some of their opponents. It is also argued that Elton’s moderate ecological holism resonated with his preference for analogies between ecological communities and human societies over more common ones between communities and individual organisms. I discuss, on the one hand, how the functionalist-interactionist approach to community ecology introduced by Elton entailed a view of ecological communities as more or less self-maintaining functionally organized wholes, and how his ideas on this matter were incorporated into their views by organicist ecologists Frederic Clements, Victor Shelford, and Warder C. Allee et al. On the other hand, I identify some important divergences between Elton’s ecological ideas and those of organicist ecologists. Specifically, I show how Elton’s ideas on species distribution, animal migrations, and ecological succession entailed a view of animal communities as exhibiting a weaker degree of part-whole integration than that attributed to them by Clements and Shelford; and how Elton’s mixed stance on the balance of nature idea and his associated views on community stability attributed to communities a weaker form of self-regulation than that attributed to them by Allee et al.



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Antoine C. Dussault
Centre Interuniversitaire De Recherche Sur La Science Et La Technologie (CIRST)