Article ID: CBB989133075

Neither Superorganisms nor Mere Species Aggregates: Charles Elton’s Sociological Analogies and His Moderate Holism About Ecological Communities (2020)


This paper analyzes community ecologist Charles Elton’s ideas on animal communities, and situates them with respect to the classical opposition between organicist–holistic and individualistic–reductionist ecological views drawn by many historians of ecology. It is argued that Elton espoused a moderate ecological holism, which drew a middle way between the stricter ecological holism advocated by organicist ecologists and the merely aggregationist views advocated by some of their opponents. It is also argued that Elton’s moderate ecological holism resonated with his preference for analogies between ecological communities and human societies over more common ones between communities and individual organisms. I discuss, on the one hand, how the functionalist-interactionist approach to community ecology introduced by Elton entailed a view of ecological communities as more or less self-maintaining functionally organized wholes, and how his ideas on this matter were incorporated into their views by organicist ecologists Frederic Clements, Victor Shelford, and Warder C. Allee et al. On the other hand, I identify some important divergences between Elton’s ecological ideas and those of organicist ecologists. Specifically, I show (1) how Elton’s ideas on species distribution, animal migrations, and ecological succession entailed a view of animal communities as exhibiting a weaker degree of part-whole integration than that attributed to them by Clements and Shelford; and (2) how Elton’s mixed stance on the balance of nature idea and his associated views on community stability attributed to communities a weaker form of self-regulation than that attributed to them by Allee et al.

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Authors & Contributors
Verhaegh, Sander
Rispoli, Giulia
Donohue, Christopher R.
Kirchhoff, Thomas
García Lozano, José Antonio
Brooks, Daniel S.
History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
Journal of the History of Biology
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science
Llull: Revista de la Sociedad Española de Historia de las Ciencias y de las Técnicas
Environment and History
Springer Nature
University of California, San Diego
Arizona State University
University of Chicago Press
Rowman & Littlefield
Philosophy of science
Elton, Charles Sutherland
Bodenheimer, Friedrich Simon
Peus, Fritz
Bogdanov, A. Aleksandr
Levins, Richard
Whitehead, Alfred North
Time Periods
20th century
20th century, early
19th century
21st century
Great Britain
British Isles
Soviet Union
Universität Zürich
Oxford University
Humboldt Universität zu Berlin
Harvard University

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