Ecology, the Ascendent Perspective

Robert E. Ulanowicz
Columbia University Press

1997/201pp./25 illus.
Cloth $47.50/ISBN 0-231-10828-1
Paper $24.00/ISBN 0-231-10829-X

book2Ecology, the Ascendent Perspective deals primarily with the causes behind the development of ecosystems and other naturally-organizing systems. It traces the prevailing scientific worldview to origins other than Isaac Newton. In the process it shows how the newtonian concensus has co-opted significant challenges by thermodynamics and genetics by forcing these disciplines to adopt an image of a world that is causally closed. Ecology, by contrast, seems more at home in a conceptual environment where, as Karl Popper suggests, causes can arise at all scales of observation.

But one does not again open the Pandora’s box of a contingent universe without at the same time accounting for how the order in the world (and in ecosystems in particular) can arise and be maintained. Toward this end, the “glue” of nature appears as what Popper has described as context-dependent “propensities” that result from chance interferences between processes. Once these propensities appear, they can be maintained as formal and final causal agencies in the sense first espoused by Aristotle and recently given new form by Robert Rosen.

The workings of these non-Newtonian agencies amongst any ensemble of processes can be expressed in concrete and measureable fashion by a whole system attribute called the “ascendency”, which expresses the size and organization of the system in information-theoretic terms. The same calculus of information theory also quantifies the limits to system growth and development. Ascendency theory allows one to express the overall status of a dynamic system in quantitative fashion. The degree of system response to perturbation finally can be measured. The theory also affords quantitative meanings for heretofore vague notions, such as “eutrophication” and ecosystem “health”. In ascendency one discovers a new gauge of system performance that can be applied to ecological, biological or physical systems.

In short, the notion of ascendency, and the causality that it entails, opens a decidedly new window on the world of events. It offers a perspective that is more amenable than conventional wisdom will allow to the notions of free-will and human dignity. It throws a wholly new light on how scientific research should be pursued (and funded). It offers useful analogies for the fields of economics, jurisprudence and political science. It even shows potential for ameliorating the perceived antagonism between science and religion. Finally, it catapults ecology from the margins of science, where it has lain adumbrated by netwonian thinking, into the spotlight of interest, from where it can illumine new pathways for scientific thinking.

Available from Columbia University Press.