Article ID: CBB621023099

The Myth of Frederic Clements’s Mutualistic Organicism, or: On the Necessity to Distinguish Different Concepts of Organicism (2020)


In the theory and history of ecology, Frederic Clements’s theory of plant communities is usually presented as the historical prototype and a paradigmatic example of synecological organicism, characterised by the assumption that ecological communities are functionally integrated units of mutually dependent species. In this paper, I will object to this standard interpretation of Clements’s theory. Undoubtedly, Clements compares plant communities with organisms and calls them “complex organisms” and “superorganisms”. Further, he can indeed be regarded as a proponent of ecological organicism—provided that one defines ecological organicism as the interpretation of synecological units according to the model of the individual organism. However, Clements’s theory does not include the assumption that mutual dependence is a principle of the organisation of plant communities. Rather, he interprets plant communities as top-down control-hierarchical entities, in which subordinate species depend on dominant species—but not the other way around. Therefore, his theory represents what may be called ‘control-hierarchical organicism’ as against ‘mutualistic organicism’. The erroneous attribution to Clements of ‘mutualistic organicism’ might be due to an unawareness of the existence of different concepts of the organism. This unawareness results in the projection on Clements’s theory of a seemingly self-evident mutualistic concept of organism that Clements himself did not use as a basis for his theory of plant communities.

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Authors & Contributors
Eliot, Christopher Hobson
da Rocha Brando Fernandez, Fernanda
Kepa Ruiz-Mirazo
Dussault, Antoine C.
Bereiter-Hahn, Jürgen
Escribano-Cabeza, Miguel
History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
Filosofia e História da Biologia
Annals of the History and Philosophy of Biology
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Llull: Revista de la Sociedad Española de Historia de las Ciencias y de las Técnicas
Journal of the History of Biology
Springer Nature
University of Georgia Press
Rowman & Littlefield
Elsevier Academic Press
University of Minnesota
Philosophy of science
Systems biology
Clements, Frederic Edward
Gleason, Henry Allan
Cowles, Henry Chandler
Bodenheimer, Friedrich Simon
Peus, Fritz
Odum, Eugene P.
Time Periods
20th century
20th century, early
18th century
United States
Great Britain
Harvard University

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