Robert P. McIntosh (1985, p. 59) and Frank B. Golley (1996, p. 36) credited Stephen A. Forbes (1887: The lake as a microcosm) with the idea that matter circulates within ecosystems such as lakes due to a byzantine misquotation. This is not so, as the following shows.
The Lake as a Microcosm
Forbes said in an earlier article:
"Consequently, one finds in a single body of water a far more complete and independent equilibrium of organic life and activity than in any equal body of land. It forms a little world within itself,--a microcosm within which all the elemental forces are at work and the play of life goes on in full, but on so small a scale as to bring it easily within the mental grasp." (Forbes 1880, p. 19)The quote reappears verbatim in his 'The Lake as a Microcosm' of 1887, which in turn was reprinted in 1925. I have not yet discovered any differences between the 1887 original and the 1925 reprint.
The rest of the article describe what we'd today call food relations or, looking at whole systems, as food webs. He did not, however, say anything about the circulation of matter in lakes in this article or any other I've read of him.
Reconstructing how the misquotation came into being
Hans-Joachim Elster gave a talk at a meeting of the International Limnological Society in Stuttgart, Germany. It has been published as Elster (1974). As the acknowledgement says, Elster's original German manuscript was translated into English by Dr. T. T. Macan. The following passage was meant to summarize (not quote) Forbes's 'The Lake as a Microcosm'. Unfortunately, the summary of Forbes is in a smaller font leading some readers into mistaking it for a prolonged quote of Forbes, which it is not.
"As the problem of fishery biology and the supply of pure water led to an unified approach to freshwater studies, the first concept of the limnological ecosystem was put forward by Forbes (1887) in his essay "The lake as a microcosm". As this work is often cited but hard to obtain and little known at least in Europe, some of his main points may be repeated.
A lake is an old and relatively primitive system, isolated from its surroundings. Within it matter circulates, and controls operate to produce an equilibrium comparable with that in a similar area of land. In this microcosm nothing can be fully understood until its relationship to the whole is clearly seen. This will be demonstrated later when the population dynamics of the common black bass, its place in a food chain and its containment by competitors are described. Flood-lakes and their connection with the river fauna, the effect of a river overflowing its banks and that of dead loops and blind side channels, the food chain in the flooded region, fluctuations in level and the changes in the population of ox-bows are further examples. The contrast between the substratum in shallow water with its white chironomids and that in deep water with its red chironomids is related to the fineness of the sediments eroded from the bank and to the amount of arganic matter. Observations are made on the vertical migrations of the planktonic entomostracae, which, whether predator or detritus-feeder, are protected in the open water by their transparency. Large (L. Michigan) and small (L. Geneva) lakes are compared and the differences in their communities established. Size, form and rate of reproduction in daphnids is dependent on food supply, which is related to the proportion of littoral region. The difference in the bottom fauna of shallow and of deep lakes, and even the Mysis problem, are mentioned in connexion with a comparison of various lakes in Illinois and Wisconsin. The lake appears as an organic system, a balance between building up and breaking down in which the struggle for existence and natural selection have produced an equilibrium, a "community of interest", between predator and prey." (Elster 1974, p. 10)I emulated the change in font, in order to give you a feeling of the appearance of quotation. Indeed, the passage begins very much as if it was a quote. The hints that it is not a quote come later.
On the one hand, the translation from German into English left its mark. For example, Elster's usage (or rather his translator's) is "ox-bow lakes", whereas Forbes (1887; 1925) consistently uses "horse-shoe lakes". On the other hand, the passage: "The difference in the bottom fauna of shallow and of deep lakes, and even the Mysis problem, are mentioned" clearly shows that here is someone appreciating in retrospective how Forbes addressed a limnological problem, which later got known by the keyword Mysis problem.
Forbes, however, said nothing on Mysis that could tell an outsider what that Mysis problem is supposed to be. Below follows Forbes on Mysis:
"At Grand Traverse Bay, in Lake Michigan, I found at a depth of one hundred fathoms a very odd fish of the sculpin family (Triglopsis thompsoni, Gir.), which, until I collected it, had been known only from the stomachs of fishes; and there also was an abundant crustacean, Mysis,--the "opossum shrimp", as it is sometimes called--the principal food of these deep lake sculpins. Two remarkable amphipod crustaceans also belong in a peculiar way to this deep water. In the European lakes the same Mysis occurs in the deepest part, with several other forms not represented in our collections,--two of these being blind crustaceans related to those which in this country occur in caves and wells." (Forbes 1887, p. 84f)To readers not versed in limnology, like myself, it is not clear how these statements adumbrate a Mysis-problem. Here, Elster seems to give a broad hint that only his co-limnologists could understand.
Later scholars mistook Elster's summary as a quote
Robert P. McIntosh, for example, wrote:
"In his famous article "The Lake as a Microcosm" (1887) he wrote:
The lake is an old and relatively primitive system, isolated from its surroundings. Within it matter circulates, and controls operate to produce an equilibrium comparable with that in a similar area of land. In this microcosm nothing can be fully understood until its relationship to the whole is clearly seen.
Forbes's explicitly organismic conception of the lake parallels Clements's organismic concept of plant formation" (McIntosh 1985, p. 59)This is clearly not from Forbes but from Elster. Moreover, I do not think that compounding the guiding metaphors of (micro-)cosm and (super-)organism helps understanding. In a later post, I show that a similar confusion of the organism and machine metaphor lead to a false claim of celebrated history writer Peder Anker about Tansley's ecosystem concept. My advice: keep micro-cosm, super-organism, and mega-machine analogies separate.
After McIntosh, Frank B. Golley repeated this misquotation:
"Forbes described a lake as "an old and relatively primitive system, isolated from its surroundings. Within it matter circulates, and control soperate to produce an equilibrium comparable with that in a similar area of land. In this microcosm nothing can be fully understood until its relationship to the whole is clearly seen. ... The lake appears as an organic system, a balance between building up and breaking down in which the struggle for existence and natural selection have produced an equilibrium, a 'community of interest,' between predator and prey." In this 1887 statement, made almost fifty years before Tansley formulated his concept of the ecosystem, Forbes anticipated several of the points Tansley was trying to make, and in one sense at least, went beyond Tansley. Forbes's vision of a lake as an isolated object, a system in which cycles of matter maintain an equilibrium between the forces of production and decomposition, has--more than one hundred years later--a contemporary cast." (Golley 1996, p. 36)These misquotations by McIntosh and Golley have in fact set me on a hunt for early ecosystem-like concepts trying to understand why Tansley's concept survived while others did not. (If you are interested, the result has been published in Web Ecology 7(2007). But that is a different story.)
Earlier scholars, like Hutchinson (1964), said nothing about circulation of material in reconsidering Forbes's microcosm. Elster (1974) is probably the source of the misquotation.
How did Elster (1974) come to credit Forbes with conceiving the concept of ecological matter cycling?
There is an ambiguity in the use of the term 'food cycle' in early ecological writings such as Charles Elton's classic textbook Animal Ecology from 1927. Elton called several of his figures food cycles, whereas we'd call them food webs today. Mathew A. Leibold and J. Timothy Wooton say as much in their 2001 introduction to a reprint of Elton's classic by Chicago University Press:
"The first of Elton's central concepts is that of food chains and food cycles (which we today call food webs)."(Leibold and Wooton 2001, p. xxxii)This ambiguity in early usage may be the root to the false crediting of Forbes with the concept of ecological cycles of matter, because Forbes definitely did describe food webs. If Elster used a German equivalent of Elton's 'food cycle', this may well have come out as a different concept in the translation by Macan.
P.S.: When Golley was still alive, I had an e-mail exchange with him on the topic and he agreed with me on all points. Nevertheless, the misconception spreads, for example, in the German Wikipedia site on the "Ökosystem" (accessed 27.07.2011 and 16.03.2012).
- Elster H-J (1974) 'History of Limnology'. Mitteilungen Internat. Verein. Limnol. 20: 7-30.
- Elton C (1927/2001) Animal Ecology with new introductory material by Mathew A. Leibold and J. Timothy Wooton, University of Chicago Press.
- Forbes, SA (1880) 'The Food of Fishes.' Bull. Illinois State Laboratory Natural History 1(3):19-79.
- Forbes SA (1887) 'The Lake as a Microcosm.' Bulletin of the Scientific Association Peoria, IL, 1887: 77-87.
- Forbes SA (1925) 'The Lake as a Microcosm.' Bulletin of the State of Illinois Natural History Survey 15: 537-550.
- Golley BF (1996) A History of the Ecosystem Concept. Yale Univ Press, New Haven.
- Hutchinson GE (1964) The lacustrine microcosm reconsidered. American Scientist 52: 334-341.
- Leibold MA, Wooton JT (2001) Introduction. In: Elton (19272001) Animal Ecology, University of Chicago Press.
- McIntosh RP (1985) The background of ecology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.