In the theory and history of ecology, Frederic Clements’s theory of plant communities is usually presented as the historical prototype and a paradigmatic example of synecological organicism, characterised by the assumption that ecological communities are functionally integrated units of mutually dependent species. In this paper, I will object to this standard interpretation of Clements’s theory. Undoubtedly, Clements compares plant communities with organisms and calls them “complex organisms” and “superorganisms”. Further, he can indeed be regarded as a proponent of ecological organicism—provided that one defines ecological organicism as the interpretation of synecological units according to the model of the individual organism. However, Clements’s theory does not include the assumption that mutual dependence is a principle of the organisation of plant communities. Rather, he interprets plant communities as top-down control-hierarchical entities, in which subordinate species depend on dominant species—but not the other way around. Therefore, his theory represents what may be called ‘control-hierarchical organicism’ as against ‘mutualistic organicism’. The erroneous attribution to Clements of ‘mutualistic organicism’ might be due to an unawareness of the existence of different concepts of the organism. This unawareness results in the projection on Clements’s theory of a seemingly self-evident mutualistic concept of organism that Clements himself did not use as a basis for his theory of plant communities.
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DOI 10.1007/s40656-020-00317-y
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