Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire, 1895–1945

  • Peder Anker
Harvard University Press: 2002. 352 pp. $59.95, £41.50

Until about 50 years ago, those writing about the history of science tended to be distinguished elderly scientists who had done their creative work and in retirement were writing about their heroes — and themselves. There was a tendency to see history as a progress to the truth, and the emphasis was on ideas. In tune with the positivist philosophy of the age, science was taken to be a struggle to wrest the disinterested truth from objective nature.

All of that changed when the history of science became a profession. Students were trained as real historians, sensitive to the values of the past as worthwhile in their own right. Archives were opened showing that the private face of science was often a lot less polished and savoury than the public one. And because practitioners now often had little direct experience of science in the laboratory or in the field, there was a consequent de-emphasis of ideas for their own sake.

Imperial Ecology, which started life as Peder Anker's PhD thesis in the History of Science Department at Harvard University, is very much in the new style. The story is about ecology — the study of the relationships between organisms — and its political and cultural history, particularly as practised in South Africa during the first half of the twentieth century. This is a story about people with social agendas and philosophies that they read into their science and then promptly read right back out again. Essentially, the book describes how ecological thinking might influence political views — and how political views may influence ecological thinking.

Anker sees two main groups or ideologies, the people and the ideas being virtually one and the same. On one hand, there were those of the Englishman Arthur George Tansley and many of the pioneers of modern ecology, such as Charles S. Elton, who subscribed to some form of mechanistic philosophy. These people wanted to understand the dynamics (and persistence) of ecological systems, to achieve control over nature. The basic idea seems to be one of 'equilibrium': as things get thrown out of balance by external disruptions (of natural or human origin) and then strive to regain balance and order.

Opposed to this view were the group surrounding the South African statesman and philosopher General Jan Smuts, whose interests in ecology were primarily related to their political world views. Although he was prime minister of his country for many years (and an active politician for almost all of his life), Smuts was always interested in the underlying metaphysical principles of reality, and to this end he formulated his philosophy of 'holism'.

Holism bore many similarities to the vitalistic philosophy of Henri Bergson and the organismic one of Samuel Alexander and Alfred North Whitehead. Smuts saw the whole of nature as being integrated, a living whole in which humans have a central (but by no means exclusive) role, evolving up from the primitive to the complex. This was bound up with his thinking about black people, whom he considered to be lower down the scale than whites; although he thought them deserving of some respect and opportunities (in this, Smuts was a lot more liberal than many of his countrymen), he certainly did not think them deserving of the full position of those of European descent. Extending this to organic nature, Smuts and his followers stressed its oneness with everything, and how things are naturally in harmony and only at war when there are unnatural disruptions. In a way, darwinism was turned on its head, for the natural state is for things to be interconnected and working together for the whole.

Anker takes these two positions and traces them to the end of the Second World War, when Smuts was at his height as an international figure for his work in drafting the charter for the United Nations. Holism fell on hard times, as the Nationalists gained power in South Africa and the nation turned towards Apartheid and the evils thereof. But within the field of ecology, holism is still alive — and still troublesome.

There is certainly much of interest in this book, and it is written with great attention to detail and to important concepts and ideas. But at the end one is left wondering about the book and the science that it is discussing. Is ecology really little more than an epiphenomenon of previously held philosophical beliefs? Or does it have a life of its own? Does it have any relationship to sciences that have real experiments, measurements, observations and tests, and revisions in the light of the evidence? Was ecology then, or indeed now, little more than an excuse for people to sound off about their views on the meaning of life (like today's more political ecology movement and ecophilosophy)? Or is there something more, something altogether sterner and more empirical — something that is masked and ignored by the approach taken by the new historians of science? Would the older, less sophisticated historians have found something that is now missed? Could they have been right in their practice, if wrong in their philosophy, showing that not all change is indeed progress?

We would have liked the book much more if it had included more thorough presentations and discussions of the parallel development of ecology. Surely the philosophy of Smuts lives on in ecology today (as holistic or system-orientated ecology), especially among those who share his vision of an integrated organic world in which there is a natural harmony disturbed primarily by humans. But the mechanistic equilibrium position corresponding to the development of population and community intrinsic feedback interactions is currently the dominating one — not least because it pays proper attention to darwinian evolution.

Perhaps if this book had been written by practising ecologists with proper training in the history of science, or by a historian trained in ecology, it might have covered the ideological and subject-based conceptual issues in a more balanced way.