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Submitted by jdp on Thu, 01/13/2022 - 07:37 am

Catchy title, huh?

This is a story about scientific methodology and how experience, reasoning, and theory from quite different starting points (the consilience part) can lead to the same intellectual destination (equifinality). These starting points range from dialectical materialism, which is redolent of Marxism, to cybernetics, which smacks of computer science and robotics. 

The common destination is an approach to science—and I am focused on geosciences and ecosystem science—based firstly on recognition that our objects of study are interconnected systems of mutually adjusting components. This is straightforward to understand and explain. Certainly much has been, and continues to be, learned from reductionist science that seeks to isolate these interacting components.1 But no ecologist, geographer, pedologist, geologist, etc. would argue that we can ultimately understand our objects of study without putting the pieces together; without at least considering contexts and interactions. 

Secondly, my approach (as in the approach I use & prefer; I am not claiming ownership or authorship!) is based not just on interactions but on constant coevolution and mutual adjustments.2 I’ll use the term Earth surface systems (ESS), as I have before, as an umbrella term for biophysical landscapes, environmental systems, ecosystems, geomorphic and soil systems, etc. So, the idea is not just that a change or input to one part of the system triggers reactions in other parts, but that these reactions are ongoing, and repeatedly, if not constantly, reverberating through the system. 

Figure 1Summary of my view of an integrated approach to landscape evolution.

I will tell you a bit about how I first got steered toward this worldview and methodology, and experiences and ideas that reinforced and refined it. I will also relate other journeys to the same general destination. 

That leads to a couple of key questions: Does it make a difference, once at the methodological destination, how you got there? Does consilience or convergence signify multiple lines of evidence that point to truth?

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1976. I show up in Blacksburg, VA, a sophomore transfer to Virginia Tech intending to major in forestry. After calc, physics, chemistry, and forest surveying, I had room for one more course, and I picked General Systems Ecology, which required only general biology, which I’d had, as a pre-req. 

The course was difficult, and much of what the prof, Dr. Robert Giles, said went over my head. But the parts I understood, and what I inferred about the rest, were like opening a door to a new way of understanding the world. The course applied hardcore von Bertalanffy general systems theory to ecosystem ecology, in the context of wildlife management (it was a fisheries & wildlife course). As a budding environmentalist and lifelong (well, at that point 19 years worth, anyway) Nature Boy, the holistic perspective suited me well. And the idea that one could take a broad, system-level, everything-is-connected viewpoint and still be rigorous and analytical (rather than the more intuitive and poetic approach I would have previously guessed would be necessary) was both revelatory and empowering. Giles and the textbook he used (K.E.F. Watt’s Principles of Environmental Science, 1973), painted a picture of complex, ever-changing environmental systems where changes could reverberate long and far past an initial modification or disturbance—but where rules do apply, and can be identified. The fact that rules can apply at a system level—as opposed to the literally or figuratively atomic level I was learning in my physics, chemistry, and biology classes—began to make the world seem much more interesting. 

By the time I graduated from Tech, I wanted to be an environmental journalist rather than a forester (can you believe I went in thinking foresters were the guys who loved trees, not the ones who cut ‘em down and ground ‘em up?). After working as a newspaper journalist for a bit, I decided to go the environmental science route and head to grad school. Now it is relatively straightforward to go into, say, a geology or soil science or biology program and work at the interface of different aspects of the environment. In 1980, not so much. I had stumbled across Richard Chorley and Barbara Kennedy’s (1971) Physical Geography: A Systems Approach, and found my way to the nearest geography program, at East Carolina University, as I still needed to keep my job to support myself. 

So I found myself in a field that, even 40+ years ago, was all about bio-geo-climate-hydro-soil (and human) interactions. And while not all geographers (then or now) were into systems theory, it was an accepted and familiar perspective. 

In my PhD studies at Rutgers my advisor Karl Nordstrom was a bit leery of systems theory in the fairly abstract and (as he would say) arm-waving approach I tried to employ then.  But he was not opposed to it on any basic principles, and the net result was that he obliged me to tie my radical techniques3 firmly to solid, empirical ground truth. That experience taught me the value—now I would say the necessity—of problematizing theory and methods from within the domain of interest (coastal geo-ecosystems at that point) rather than from the original domains of the techniques. It was a lesson I would relearn several times throughout my career, as geoscience colleagues were skeptical—if not downright aghast—at some of my theoretical notions unless I could link them firmly and clearly to real-world observations.

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As I collected estuarine salinity data for my M.S. thesis and vegetation, sediment, and other data for my PhD, I could not help but notice how variable some parameters were over small areas and short distances, with no discernible or measurable factors or controls to account for them. Often they appeared nearly random, or at least with random-like patterns superimposed on some very general broader-scale order. The general approach to such irregularity at the time—and such phenomena were certainly obvious to anyone who stepped into a soil pit or monitored more than a few vegetation plots—was to ignore/shrug it off, or focus on folding it into the broader general patterns as unexplained local aberrations, as in the “nugget effects” of geostatistics. 

Part of the New Jersey shore of Delaware Bay, my dissertation field site in 1983-4 (Google EarthTM image).

That would have been fine with me if the world really was dominated by regular patterns, with variations linked to observable controls, blemished by occasional local deviations. But the regularity isn’t always dominant, and even where it is clearly evident, the local deviations are much more frequent than your occasional anomaly. I began searching for ways to understand and explain complex local spatial variability without resorting to a full case study of every single auger hole or section of outcrop or vegetation patch or bit of channel. 

At this stage I stumbled on Rudy Slingerland’s short 1981 article (in Geology), “Qualitative analysis of complex systems, with an example from river hydraulic geometry.” Yes. Here was a way to start getting at that spatial complexity, and though it took me a long time to get the math involved, the fact that it was clearly linked to general systems theory gave me an access point. Over time I discovered links to many other theoretical and methodological approaches, but at that point I was headed toward my integrated view of ESS evolution.

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So that’s how I got (t)here. But many other people have come to a similar place through quite different pathways, and, alas, not very many guided by me or by my writings. One route is cybernetics, defined by its pioneer Norbert Wiener in 1948 as the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine. Though closely related to systems theory, cybernetics has focused more on how systems function with respect to, as mentioned above, control and communication. There are traditions of cybernetics applications in ecology and geography, and to lesser extents in evolutionary biology, geology, and hydrology, that go back to the 1950s. 

Another route to thinking about nature in terms of ongoing reciprocal interactions is through models such as Lotka and Volterra’s predator-prey models from the early 20th century. Ecological and population biology models with networks of mutual adjustments were in fact a key component of the development of complex systems theory in the 1980s. Complex adaptive systems (CAS) theories and methods, first developed in sociology, also lend themselves or lead to an approach based on evolving systems characterized by ongoing networks of interactions. CAS has found application in a wide variety of fields, including Earth and Environmental sciences. 

But what go me to thinking about this is the idea that my approach could have arisen from Engels’ (yes, that Engels) writings on the dialectics of nature in the late 19th century. 

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Dialectical materialism and Frederick Engels are inextricably linked to Marxism. However, it still amazes me that so many do not understand that one can use dialectical research approaches entirely independently of Marxist politics and philosophy (and that many avowed Marxists have little or no interest in dialectics as a research tool). Dialectics or historical materialism doesn’t make you a Marxist—though even if it did it would not invalidate (or validate, for that matter) whatever you might discover using those methods. 

Dialectics is commonly defined as “the contradiction between two conflicting forces viewed as the determining factor in their continuing interaction.” By that definition, the study of ESS is dialectical. Much of what we understand about ESS is based on dialectical relationships at an absolutely fundamental level. A few examples:

I have previously blogged about the possibilities of taking a fully dialectical approach to geomorphology.

Engels and subsequent scientific dialecticians, like systems theorists, are interested in alternatives to Cartesian reductionism, which is based on the notion that any system can be broken down into homogeneous parts. The parts are ontologically prior to the whole, and have intrinsic properties that are contributed to the whole. Reductionism also assumes that causes and effects are separate and that subjects can readily be distinguished from objects, and effects from causes. 

In contrast, Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin (in their 1985 book The Dialectical Biologist, and drawing directly from Engels), identify five key principles of dialectical materialism (italics are mine):

(1) The whole is a relation of heterogeneous parts, which (2) have no prior or independent existence as parts. (3) Wholes and parts interpenetrate each other, as subjects/objects and causes/effects may be interchangeable. (4) Change is characteristic of all systems and their aspects, and (5) contradictions are ubiquitous in nature. 

Thinking about this in terms of my approach to ESS made me think I must be a dialectical materialist!

My home boy, Frederick Engels.

And maybe I am. If I object to being called one, it is only because I am uncomfortable with labeling myself with –isms of any kind, not because I can’t see the obvious connections to my work, or due to its association with Marxism. 

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But am I really? If I independently develop a set of beliefs and a moral code that is consistent with that of, say, the Presbyterian Church, does that make me a Presbyterian?

As Earth and environmental sciences evolved, a great many scientists have come to both preach and practice an approach based on interconnected, evolving systems with mutual adjustments and reciprocal causality among their components, including (inevitably) a number of dialectical contradictions. In many cases, probably most, these arose with no direct connection with dialectical materialism, general or complex systems theory, cybernetics, complex adaptive systems, or other prescriptive or proscriptive philosophies or conceptual frameworks. Rather, they seem to have emerged organically due to the pragmatism (for those who insist on –isms!) that dominates our science. That is, this approach works because it accurately reflects our observations and provides tools to make progress toward our research goals. 

This is reflected in, among many other things, the recent and recent-ish emergence of hybrid subdisciplines. For the most part, studies of geo-eco-hydro-pedo interactions were mainly one-way with respect to causality, rather than reciprocal interactions. A growing recognition that biota, landforms, soils, and hydrology (and climate) are best understood as responding and evolving together, along with increasing attention to reciprocity, inspired the birth of several focusing directly on these reciprocal interactions. 

Biogeochemistry is the oldest of these, dating at least to Vernadsky in the 1920s, focusing on the cycles of elements such as carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus, which involves both biochemical and geochemical processes (as well as geophysical and biological transport processes) and interactions among the atmosphere, biosphere, and lithosphere. There also exists a tradition of geoecology, dealing mainly with intertwined geomorphological and ecological processes. These have been joined more recently by ecohydrology, which emphasizes interactions and feedbacks between ecological systems and the hydrological cycle. Biogeomorphology (or ecogeomorphology) is concerned with the influence of landforms and surface processes on the distribution and development and functioning of organisms and ecological systems, and with the simultaneous influences of biota and ecological dynamics on Earth surface processes and the development of landforms. Hydropedology was proposed to link traditional pedology with soil physics and hydrology, while geobiology explores the relationship between life and the Earth's physical and chemical environment.  

The terms Earth system, climate, ecosystem, and critical zone science have come into wide use in recent decades.Earth system science emphasizes the dense, reciprocal interconnections of the atmo-, hydro-, litho-, and biospheres, especially at very broad--including global—spatial scales and at time scales from fluid dynamics to planetary evolution. As concerns with impacts of contemporary climate change accelerated in the late 20th century, informed by studies of climate change and evolution in Earth history, some scientists sought to expand the perception of that research area to encompass but also transcend climatology, paleoclimatology, and atmospheric sciences. Thus, climate science emerged to also include the study of climate impacts on, and feedbacks with, human and other biophysical systems. The term ecosystem science emphasizes that the field transcends ecologywith strong links to landscape ecology, global ecology, biogeochemistry, aquatic ecology, soil science, hydrology, ecological economics and conservation biology. Critical zone science is an integrated approach to the study of rock, regolith, soil, water, biota, and atmosphere interactions near Earth's surface, with the critical zone defined as the planet’s permeable near-surface layer from groundwater to treetops 

Taken together, the growth of the terminology and associated concepts and subdisciplines mentioned above testifies to recognition that no aspect of Earth's system(s) can be fully understood in isolation from the others, and that ESS are characterized by constant internal and external feedbacks and reciprocal interactions. 

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Precursors of many of these subdisciplines and their underlying ideas do include a disproportionately large number of Russian and Soviet scientists, some of whom were avowedly Marxist, and all of whom had certainly been exposed to, if not indoctrinated in, dialectical materialism—In addition to Vladimir Vernadsky, this list includes Petr Kropootkin, V.V. Dokuchaev, Mikhail Budyko, RV. Rizpolozhensky, and V.A. Kostitzin. Cold war politics undoubtedly impeded the diffusion of these ideas into western science. 

But while much of the thinking in the subdisciplines mentioned above could have arisen from a dialectical perspective, there is not much evidence that any of it did, except perhaps indirectly through the “Russian school” scientists above, and others like them—and in fact the Russians are in general underappreciated and under-acknowledged. This suggests that, at least in post Cold War times, we got there mainly by other routes. 

Thus, if I want to try to convince someone of the utility of the integrated approach to landscape evolution summarized in Figure 1, I can do it with no mention of dialectics (as is in fact the case in a recent book2). Contrarily, I could also use my approach to argue that I am a dialectical materialist. Richard Levins, the openly Marxist co-author of The Dialectical Biologist, is also the co-author (with Charles Puccia) of Qualtitative Analysis of Complex Systems (1985), which became my methodological handbook back in the day. There is no trace of his politics or philosophical learnings in the latter book, and “dialectics” does not even appear in its index. 

The question to me at this point is: What difference does it make? Or even, who cares? This is not a challenge to any particular –ism. Nor is it a rhetorical question: I truly wonder what difference it makes. 

Let’s go ahead and stipulate that anyone’s experiences, education, inspirations, and social, political, and cultural contexts has some influence on what they do and how they do it, be they a pedologist, a trombonist, a truck driver, or a farmer.  Beyond that, the differences in how they study soils, play the ‘bone, drive a truck, or grow crops is important. But does it matter to their harvests, travels, music, or study results how or why they came to farm, drive, play music or do soil research they way they do? 

The noted dialectical pedologist Fred Wesley. Just kidding—Mr. Wesley is a legendary soul, funk, and jazz trombonist. 

I don’t know. But to those who are inclined to try to understand our world from a similar perspective to mine, whether you got here via Marxism, Methodism, mathematical modeling, metaphysics, or marine biology—welcome! Let’s get at it.


1Reductionist science will always be necessary to understand how the components of systems interact with each other. 

2This approach is laid out in edge-of-your-seat thrilling detail in Landscape Evolution.

3These would seem routine, now. But in the early 1980s I had to write my own FORTRAN programs to do geostatistics and compute fractal dimensions—and submit decks of punch cards to the computing center to run the programs. So only a few people were fooling with these relatively new techniques then. 

Posted 13 January 2022