With ecology becoming a major concern for mankind since approximately 40 years, a old idea has acquired a new topically, especially in the ‘deep’ trend of ecology: the idea of a ‘balance of nature’. Ecology often offers the image of a man polluting earth, a man as a parasite, without which nature would be in a state of peace, harmony,and innocence. The man is deregulating the earth, which supposes that it was regulated, maintaining an equilibrium.
This idea of ‘balance of nature’ is not neutral, and relies on a few assumptions and notions. The probably most important one is order, or cosmos: nature is perceived as ordered, organized, in itself. Two others notions are related: necessity (what is, in nature, is what it has tobe), and providence (presence of a foresightful and caring god or process). We should keep in mind the contrary of each notion, respectively chaos, chance, and inertia, in order to study the idea of a ‘balance of nature’.
Indeed, as Frank N. Egerton notices, ‘balance of nature’ is not a concept until Linnaeus, but rather an unchallenged ‘background assumption’ accompanying philosophy and science.How has this background assumption influenced the western thought upon nature throughout history?
Three periods can be distinguished, each corresponding to a particular view of nature : a greek view (I) , a Renaissance view (II), and a Modern view of nature (III).
The Greek view is often limited to Plato and Aristotle, and yet, it is way larger, considering the Presocratics and their varioustrends.
The atomists have developed, early in European thought, an idea of nature as unbalanced. Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius, major thinkers of this trend, conceived nature as constituted by atoms, indivisible particles of matter, and void, in which atoms move and gather. They require no God for their explanations of the world: there is no necessity, no order, and above all, noprovidence. But this view had been quite unpopular at the time, since it appeared like a intuition lacking of evidences, and of which moral implications (atheism) were unconceivable.
Ionian philosophers focused their attention on cosmological problems. They defined nature as things that exist in themselves, which have not been made. The further Aristotelian distinction between the natural and theartificial is here sketched. Ionians were undoubtedly affected by the background assumption of a ‘balance of nature’. First, they conceived the world as a giant animal. This is what Frank N. Egerton call the ‘microcosm-macrocosm analogy’: the world is considered as a huge organism. This organism is ensouled, which lead us to the second point: God. For Thales, he made the world and is the source of thevital process of the world-organism. For Anaximander, God is immanent, and is identified with the Boundless, i.e. undetermined matter. Nature is then balanced by God, and by its own organism order.
Pythagoras introduced forms and geometry into the understanding of the natural world, after Anaximenes started to do so. Matter takes different forms, resulting different properties. It is worth noticingthat Pythagoras didn’t referred to final causes explaining the relation between forms and the diversity of nature. Teleology is absent from his reasoning. Furthermore, he avoided concluding that forms are inherent to matter and exist without human understanding, or separately from nature. Galileo, saying that ‘Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe.’ formulates theformer proposition. The latter is the position chosen by Plato and Aristotle, the 2 most influential Greek thinkers in Western thought.
Indeed, for Plato, forms are transcendent, and belong to the intelligible world, a world of pure forms, of which the forms in nature are only a degenerating copy: no perfect forms can be observed in nature. The sensible world of nature is imitating the world of...