Ecology: The Ascendent Perspective By Robert Ulanowicz (1997) – Book Review

This is a review of the book Ecology: The Ascendent Perspective, by Robert E. Ulanowicz.

Brief overview:

Ecology: The Ascendent Perspective, first published in 1997, is in many ways a more accessible and more philosophical follow-up to Ulanowicz’s groundbreaking but highly technical Growth and Development (1986), and can also be viewed as an intermediate book between this earlier technical text and his later book A Third Window: Natural Life Beyond Newton and Darwin (2009), which is primarily philosophical. It is intended for a scientific audience, and is not a pop-science book, but it is quite accessible, and will be an easy read for career scientists in any field, as well as motivated, science-minded undergraduate students.

The book outlines the core aspects of Ulanowicz’s network-based theory of how ecological systems grow and develop, but without going into as much depth about the mathematics. It is primarily a book of ideas. The book also explores the philosophical and historical underpinnings of the ideas, which I personally find are much more important than the specific theories themselves. Ulanowicz seems to know full well that his theories are a bit raw and unrefined, but I think that the philosophical points he makes are rock-solid and show deep insights that go far beyond what most scientists have to offer. While there are many grounds on which Ulanowicz’s theories can be criticized, it is hard to argue with the big-picture themes he presents, which show a deep awareness of cultural and societal influences on scientific research, and the innate limitations on what types of questions can be fruitfully asked and answered in a scientific context.

A Personal Story:

My story of reading this book is quite personal and bizarre.

In the fall of 2001, I was enrolled in Oberlin college, where I was in my senior year, majoring in mathematics. This semester, I was taking a private reading in the Biology department, on the topic of systems theory as it applies to biology and ecology. On September 11th, 2001, early in the morning, I secluded myself in one of the higher floors of Oberlin, and set out to read this book. I read a large chunk of this book in one sitting, and I can say, it produced a revolution in my world-view, an unfolding of new ideas which has continued to this day. When I left the building to take a lunch break, I was shocked to hear about the terrorist attacks that had recently taken place. This day was truly a worldview-changing day for me, in more ways than one.

My recommendations:

I recommend this book as a must-read for anyone studying any of the following subjects: ecology, networks, philosophy of science, and systems theory. The book will be of particular interest to anyone who is interested in questioning the dominant paradigms of science, and anyone who wishes to become more of a systems thinker or who wants to think more in terms of networks. The book may even be useful to economists or people interested in adopting a more systems-based approach in business, public policy, or other fields involving systems of people. The style is lively and the book is thought-provoking. And it’s a surprisingly easy read, given how deep the repercussions are of the ideas contained within.

Beyond Difference: A Biologists Perspective by Anne Fausto-Sterling

In her 1997 Journal of Social Issues article, Beyond Difference: A Biologists Perspective, evolutionary biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling argues against the controversial issue of whether or not evolutionary psychology explains human sex differences.

Fausto-Sterling’s orientation to social change is dichotomous. While she is a “defender” of the current scientific paradigm, which heavily relies on the scientific method, she also seeks to “reform” the ideological stance taken by many evolutionary psychologists, and to do so at the level of the scientific community. In Fausto-Sterling’s article, she strives to foster communication and collaboration with her peers in the emerging field of evolutionary psychology, attempting to share the wisdom she has gleaned from her much more established field of evolutionary biology.

The “popular media’s publicity blitz” was Fausto-Sterling’s occasion to advocate for good science in response to several mainstream articles that had attempted to smear the credible reputation of biologists by presenting evolutionary psychologists latest theories as facts.

Fausto-Sterling’s core values are to uphold the current framework surrounding the concept of credible scientific research. Her beliefs, stated and restated, are that the entire scientific community should adhere to the existing scientific paradigm, including the scientific method, and “solid theory and detailed empirical information”.

Fausto-Sterling believes that evolutionary psychologists need to create more specific hypotheses and need more data to back up those hypotheses. She believes that researchers of all sorts should conform to a standard measure of scientific hypothesis that can be answered empirically rather than merely assuming vague answers, as is being done by some in the arena of evolutionary psychology. To the social scientists studying gender inequity and skewing their incomplete theories to support their own cases, she warns them that a credible scientist cannot pick merely one level of analysis to answer a question; one needs to consider many different possibilities, including development, evolution, and environment.

She gives the example of answering the question: why do frogs jump? One can’t just say that frogs jump because they are part of an environment and they are jumping to escape from a predator. Fausto-Sterling explains that one must deepen ones levels of analysis and consider different possibilities of why frogs jump, for instance because of twitching muscles, or an even deeper analysis, that frogs jump because nerve impulses cause proteins to contract.

Fausto-Sterling has very valid points that should be considered by all in the scientific community in order that they are on the same page on a worldwide level. These are the means by which science advances.

Fausto-Sterling offers sound advice and methodological suggestions as well as two research-based models that are available to assist this new breed of social scientist. She strongly believes in the value of collaboration amongst the scientific community and sees biologists as potential assets to social scientists. Because collaboration increases information Fausto-Sterling suggests that we, “engage in current discussions using the best available knowledge and the most highly detailed hypotheses available”, and by these means, together, social scientists, evolutionists, and behavioral biologists could develop “scientifically sound theories about the evolution of human behavioral patterns and their relationship to contemporary behavior”.

Fausto-Sterling also recommends that social scientists utilize the plethora of already existing data, for example archaeological and geographical records, or molecular evidence. She also suggests making sure they are able to generalize their correlations to humans when drawing inferences from animal studies, as “elegant” as they may be.

The research-based model that Fausto-Sterling identifies and suggests for use in making specific hypotheses regarding human evolution is called “Latour and Strum’s Nine Questions” and is used to evaluate theory quality. She also cites four standard questions used by evolutionary biologists that “have been suggested as essential to the acceptance of conjectures about the evolution of human reproductive behaviors”.

Fausto-Sterling’s argument contributes much to the understanding of the problem at hand. She bends over backwards to make sure that her writing is clear and her points are understood. She creatively uses hypothetical examples, such as the jumping frogs and the mice to bats to demonstrate her points. She even criticizes her own hypotheses, along with those of some evolutionary psychologists, to show that while both of their theories are “plausible”, they both also “lack essential information”. She also offers a great deal of alternative hypotheses to Buss’s hypothesis.

Fausto-Sterling is not just tearing the competition apart; rather she humbly portrays herself and her peers in the scientific community as having knowledge and wisdom to share with their uprising peers and this article seems to be an attempt to reach out to them. She sees the potential that these social scientists have to contribute, and attempts to persuade them to stop manipulating their knowledge of biology to fit their own ideological social beliefs, and misrepresenting other sciences in doing so, when we could all benefit from what they have to offer if they use science properly, “thick, complex, multivariate descriptions of human behavior”.