Saturday, 15 March 2014

Tansley was a polymath - not a monist

With polymath I mean someone who masters different "arts" - say various sciences, philosophy, some musical instrument - without needing to crudely transfer ideas or skills from one art to the other. A monist will, on the other hand, always find the same ideas reflected in the different arts he masters. I am convinced that Tansley was a polymath. In order to make that point, I will start with a counter example.

As it happens, Tansley revered Spencer as a juvenile, but he came to master philosophy pretty well. When, as a 24 year old, he helped Spencer to revise the second edition of Spencer's Principles of Biology, he already regarded himself as an equal to Spencer. As Ayres (2012, p. 185) writes, Spencer had to reign Tansley in, in order to keep his own synthetic world view represented in the Principles of Biology.

Nowadays, Herbert Spencer is not a very attractive historical figure anymore, and it is therefore understandable that nobody feels tempted to knit a myth about Spencer's philosophy having strongly influenced Tansley's ecology. Anyway, Tansley became a friend of Bertrand Russell as a student and member of the Magdalen Philosophy Club in Oxford as a professor, so there is no need to find Spencer's ideas in Tansley's ecology.

For some reason, however, the situation seems to be different with Sigmund Freud and his supposed influence on Tansley's ecology.

From annals to narrative
Here's a simple sequence of events:
1. Tansley was a botanist and pioneer of ecology by 1918.
2. His career as a botanist and ecologist experienced a slump, because his application for a professor's chair in Oxford was refused by academic enemies.
3. Tansley was also interested in Freud's theories and learned them by reading the original German publications. in 1920, he then wrote up his own take on the New Psychology and its Relation to Life and published it as a popular book meant to introduce Freud's ideas to a wider English audience. As his was the only English book on that topic on the market, it became a bestseller running through ten impressions in 5 years.
4. Later, he visited Sigmund Freud in Vienna - even settled there for  a while.
5. Eventually, however, he returned to England and became a full professor for botany at Oxford.

This sequence suggests a narrative about how Tansley must have learned something from psychology and transferred it into ecology. It is materializing itself and seems to become more plausible with every iteration.

Possible counter-narratives
The counter-narrative that Tansley has already been a distinguished ecologist and transferred knowledge from this discipline into psychology is not explored. So I will do it in the following.

As far as I know, Freud did not speculate about mental networks. Nevertheless, these figures of mental networks illustrate The Structure of the Mind (Tansley 1925, part ii).
Tansley, AG (1925, p. 58) The New psychology and its Relation to Life. [my own scan]

Tansley (1925) p. 61. [my own scan]

The question where that network metaphor came from and wither it went is difficult to answer.

On the one hand, the old psychology, that Tansley (1925) disparaged in his preface, knows a metaphor of the mind as an intricate system of connected tubes or channels through which mental energy flows. I do not remember which psychologist has priority for this idea, but it precipitated in Spencer's Principles of Psychology.

"Let us consider the nervous system as an immensely involved set of channels, some wide and allowing an easy flow, some narrow and little permeable some communicating with one another by large openings and others by openings through which nothing passes except under high pressure; but all of them more or less permeable and more or less connected." (Spencer 1890, part 5, ch. 8, §254, p. 586)

On the other hand, early ecologists wrote of food chains and food cycles rather than food webs or networks (e.g. Elton 1927).

While this seems to suggest a transfer from psychology into ecology, however, Tansley's ecological writings lack the network metaphor. His ecosystem concept (Tansley 1935), in particular, is void of any content. It only proposes to replace the classical distinction between abiotic and biotic systems (e.g. in Clement's distinction of vegetation from climate) by a system of study including both. Hence, the network metaphor did not enter ecology from psychology via Tansley (Dagg 2007).

Finally, Tansley's second book on psychology (Tansley 1952) also contains a chapter titled The Structure of the Mind, but mental networks do no longer feature in that book. Instead Tansley relates the scheme of Freud's id, ego, and super-ego and calls the mental components aggregates - not networks (Tansley 1952, p. 12).

It seems that Tansley's mental networks were not adopted by his psychoanalytic peers (Freud, Hart, Jones). maybe they identified it as belonging to the old psychology which they rejected and wanted to revolutionize. Hence no analogous transfer from ecology into psychology via Tansley either.

Until evidence for Tansley's analogous transfer becomes known to me, I shall stick with the null hypothesis that Tansley simply did not indulge in crude analogizing.

Alas, Tansley's connection to Freud seems to be irresistibly attractive. Narratives about how Tansley's knowledge of psychology and psychoanalysis must somehow have informed his ecology seem to be too good not to be told (for example, see here).

Last reiteration of the transfer-narrative
Peter Ayres (2012) has written an otherwise good biography of Arthur George Tansley, but he also reiterates, in one short passage, the legend that Tansley transferred ideas from psychology to ecology. This time, the analogy is not seen in a network pattern but in disturbance and deflection:

"The second reason why Tansley's involvement with psychology was important is that, as mentioned earlier, it affected his view of vegetational processes. At the core of his new psychology was his belief that, 'the abnormal activities of the mind, as seen in cases of hysteria and insanity, are but extreme and unbalanced developments of characteristics and functions which form integral parts of the normal healthy mind' (Cameron 1999, 10). When he and Godwin began their studies of Wicken Fen, he soon realised that the same principles were applicable to the dynamics of vegetation." Ayres (2012, 114)
"Vegetation within the 'Triangle' [an experimental plot of his student Harry Godwin] was not cut or managed in any way, its natural succession being slowly revealed to Godwin as year by year he mapped the plants. Within the additional plots, sections were cut at intervals of one, two, three, or four years, or left uncut. Thus, natural succession was 'deflected but not arrested' in the cut plots (Cameron 1999, 12). The different intervals between cutting revealed the extent to which different species were suppressed by cutting. Tansley called such deflected successions 'plagioseres' (where a 'sere' is an intermediate stage in succession); if the deflecting factors were removed then vegetation reverted to the normal development of water-logged ground, the 'hydrosere'. The parallels with the human mind, deflected from its normal healthy development into insanity or hysteria, are clear." (Ayres 2012, 115)

I'm not convinced and think the very next passage of Ayres (2012, 116) contradicts his own suggestion, because he details the conclusions of Transley and Godwin as a need to manage the Wicken Fens rather than simply leave them alone, in order to preserve the desired state of them. That is, they did not conclude that the plagiosere was a pathological state of the natural affairs that needs to be removed, like a deflected mind needs to be treated. That organismic conception of plant succession was, as Ayres (2012) also details elsewhere, Frederic E. Clements's doctrine, not Tansley's.

Source of the transfer-narrative
Ayres's source for this idea of Tansley's analogous transfer is Cameron (1999). She writes:

"This paper examines Tansley's dual interest, exploring the notion that histories of the self may be entwined with histories of the earth. The fact that Tansley and Godwin were actively sorting, fencing and mapping what they considered to be uncharted areas of disturbed vegetation during the 1920s, a period in which they were also fascinated by the possibilities of mapping the terra incognita of the human mind, occasions a compelling twist in the historical geographies of nature conservation and the self." (Cameron 1999, 5)

Again, I find the evidence far from compelling. Cameron (1999) surely provides no smoking gun proving Tansley's analogous transfer from psychology to ecology. It all boils down to an analogy between "disturbed" vegetation and "disturbed" mind and an inkling that the terms deflected succession and plagiosere may have some psychological connotation (p. 15).

Having myself searched for anything psychological about the term plagio, I found that it is an Italian term for brainwashing and a legal term for a crime of subjecting an individual to ones own will, so as to reduce that individual to a total state of subjugation. Hence, there may indeed be some psychological connotation in Tansley's use of the term plagiosere, but that hypothesis would have needed more evidence in its favor, not just an inkling by mention. As far as the use of the term deflected is concerned, it is a common sense word used in all sorts of contexts (e.g., ballistics).

On the other side, Cameron (1999) has to admit that Tansley rejected Clements' explicit (crude) analogy between vegetation and organisms already in 1920 (p. 16) and replaced it by the idea of a quasi-organism among which he counted (human) societies and vegetation. So, when returning to England and ecology, he cannot have been much of an organicist. Why should he have been inclined to analogize crudely between vegetation and organisms?

Counter evidence
Van der Valk (2013) shows that, on the contrary, Blackman and Tansley already criticized Clements' organism analogy much earlier:

"Crude concepts carried into a wider field cannot give anything but unsatisfactory and inconclusive results. […] His [Clements'] view of vegetation as an organism is as legitimate as the familiar idea of a human society from the same point of view. Both conceptions are useful and desirable so long as it is remembered that they are essentially analogical, that these quasi-organisms do not possess many of the essential features of real organisms." (Blackman & Tansley 1905 quoted in Van der Valk 2013).

The best evidence that Tansley did neither take the organism analogy nor Freudian psychology literal, like an acolyte, but was instead loftily mastering all intellectual issues and forming his opinion independently, comes from a letter of Tansley to Clements, wherein the compares Clements' fixation on the climatic climax as the sole natural outcome of succession to Freud's fixation on sex as the sole psychological drive (cited in Van der Valk 2013).

Surprisingly, a lot of the counter evidence also comes from Cameron and Forrester (1999). They show in minute detail, how Tansley discovered psychoanalysis independently of any influence of Freud, by simply letting himself freely associate meanings to one of his own dreams and thus finding an interpretation that immediately convinced him of the correctness of psychoanalysis before having read any of Freud's publications.

"To put it crudely: when Tansley was asked about Freud's influence upon him, he replied by saying influence was minimal, and offered as proof the dream he had had long before meeting or even reading freud." (Cameron and Forrester 1999, p. 79)

Tansley, feeling like an equal to Freud rather than an acolyte, probably had no need to introduce psychological ideas into other disciplines. He surely interested many of his students in psychology and Freud's literature, but not as a means for doing ecology.

The null-narrative
Therefore, until good evidence for an analogous transfer is found, I suggest a narrative in tune with the null-hypothesis that there is not much evidence for crude analogizing in Tansley's work.

Tansley had various interests, botany, ecology, psychology and philosophy among them. Does that mean that Tansley transferred ideas from psychology to ecology? Not necessarily. Almost everybody has various interests, but these are not necessarily consistent or connected.

  • Ayres, P (2012). Shaping Ecology. The life of Arthur Tansley. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, West Sussex.
  • Cameron, L (1999). Histories of disturbance. Radical History Review 74:4-24.
  • Cameron, L & Forrester, J (1999). A nice type of English scientist: Tansley and Freud. History Workshop Journal 48: 64-100. 
  • Dagg, JL (2007) Arthur G. Tansley's 'New Psychology' and its relation to ecology. Web Ecology 7: 27-34.
  • Elton, C ((1927] 2001) Animal Ecology; with new introductory material by MA Leibold and JT Wootton. University of Chicago Press.
  • Spencer, H (1890) The Principles of Psychology, vol. 1, 3rd edition. Williams and Norgate, London. 
  • Tansley, AG ([1920] 10th impression 1925). New Psychology and its Relation to Life. George Allen & Unwin, London.
  • Tansley, AG (1952) Mind and Life. Allen & Unwin; London.
  • Van der Valk (2013). From formation to ecosystem: Tansley's response to Clemets' climax. Journal of the History of Biology, online early.