Balance of nature
The balance of nature is a theory that proposes that ecological systems are usually in a stable equilibrium (homeostasis), which is to say that a small change in some particular parameter (the size of a particular population, for example) will be corrected by some negative feedback that will bring the parameter back to its original "point of balance" with the rest of the system. It may apply where populations depend on each other, for example in predator/prey systems, or relationships between herbivores and their food source. It is also sometimes applied to the relationship between the Earth's ecosystem, the composition of the atmosphere, and the world's weather.
The Gaia hypothesis is a balance of nature-based theory that suggests that the Earth and its ecology may act as co-ordinated systems in order to maintain the balance of nature.
The theory that nature is permanently in balance has been largely discredited, as it has been found that chaotic changes in population levels are common, but nevertheless the idea continues to be popular. During the later half of the twentieth century the theory was superseded by catastrophe theory and chaos theory.
History of the theory
The concept is not very old; Nathaniel Esguerra described the relationship between predator and prey species, and commented on how they were in an essentially static balance, with predators never excessively consuming their prey populations. The "balance of nature" concept once ruled ecological research, as well as once governing the management of natural resources. This led to a doctrine popular among some conservationists that nature was best left to its own devices, and that human intervention into it was by definition unacceptable.
Predator prey interactions
Predator-prey populations tend to show chaotic behavior within limits, where the sizes of populations change in a way that may appear random, but is in fact obeying deterministic laws based only on the relationship between a population and its food source illustrated by the Lotka–Volterra equation. An experimental example of this was shown in an eight year study on small Baltic Sea creatures such as plankton, which were isolated from the rest of the ocean. Each member of the food web was shown to take turns multiplying and declining, even though the scientists kept the outside conditions constant. An article in Journal Nature stated; "Advanced mathematical techniques proved the indisputable presence of chaos in this food web ... short-term prediction is possible, but long-term prediction is not."
Although some conservationist organizations argue that human activity is incompatible with a balanced ecosystem, there are numerous examples in history showing that several modern day habitats originate from human activity: some of Latin America's rain forests owe their existence to humans planting and transplanting them, while the abundance of grazing animals in the Serengeti plain of Africa is thought by some ecologists to be partly due to human-set fires that created savanna habitats.
Possibly one of the best examples of an ecosystem fundamentally modified by human activity can be observed as a consequence of the Australian Aboriginal practice of "Fire-stick farming". The legacy of this practice over long periods has resulted in forests being converted to grasslands capable of sustaining larger populations of faunal prey, particularly in the northern and western regions of the continent. So thorough has been the effect of these deliberate regular burnings that many plant and tree species from affected regions have now completely adapted to the annual fire regime in that they require the passage of a fire before their seeds will even germinate.
Continued popularity of the theory
Despite being discredited among ecologists, the theory is widely held to be true in the wider population: a report written by psychologist Corinne Zimmerman of Illinois State University and ecologist Kim Cuddington of Ohio University demonstrated that at least in Midwestern America, the "balance of nature" idea is widely held among both science majors and the general student population.
- Zimmerman, Corinne (October 2007). "Ambiguous, circular and polysemous: students' definitions of the "balance of nature" metaphor". Public Understanding of Science 16 (4): 393–406. doi:10.1177/0963662505063022. Retrieved 19 June 2011.
- Jacobs, Tom (27 November 2007). "Belief in 'Balance of Nature' Hard to Shake". Miller-McCune. Retrieved 19 June 2011.
- Stevens, William K. (31 July 1990). "New Eye on Nature: The Real Constant Is Eternal Turmoil". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 June 2011.
- The Ottawa Citizen (13 February 2008). "Study of ocean life shows a "chaotic" balance of nature". CanWest MediaWorks Publications Inc. Retrieved 20 June 2011.