|Ecology in Development: A Rationale for Three-dimensional Policy (UNU, 1984, 59 pages)|
The most basic assumption of ecology has been characterised usefully by Barry Commoner in his popular book, The Closing Circle (1971, p. 29): "The first law of ecology," he writes, is that "everything is connected to everything else." But if we proceed from such an assumption, how can we determine for practical purposes where, and how, particular chains of causation begin ?
There is no satisfactory general answer to the first part of this question. The accepted answer to the second is "by adaptation." The two questions may be combined by asking who or what adapts first. In attempting to answer this it would help to understand how adaptation works. For this question - outside the study of biological evolution there is as yet no satisfactory answer.
The difficulty is much greater when the chain of causation moves from physical and biological to social and cultural factors, since there is no generally-accepted explanatory framework common to both the natural and the social sciences. Moreover, natural scientists either assume human behaviour can be changed (and that if politicians cannot change it, social scientists should be able to), or they attempt to apply natural science theory in the explanation of human behaviour. Sometimes, somewhat illogically, they do both. At the same time they have become dependent on a number of social concepts, such as "community." Social scientists, on the other hand, have been tempted to borrow concepts from the natural sciences. especially "ecosystem" and "adaptation." However, although some studies based on such borrowing have been elegant tours de force they have generally been inadequate as explanations. But most social scientists have either ignored the ecological context of human behaviour or understood it only imperfectly, and they have sometimes justified this inattention by insisting that social and cultural processes cannot be explained by reducing them to another order of phenomena, whether biological, physical, or even psychological. There obviously is a relationship, but the exact nature of it not amenable to generalization.
Some ecological problems derive directly from changes in natural phenomena, such as precipitation patterns. In this case human activity may be blamed only insofar as it does not in due course adapt to the new situation (unless it can be shown that human activity somehow caused the change in precipitation, as in the current hypothesis that increasing accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, resulting from the increasing consumption of fossil fuels, is inducing climatic change that will include among other things higher temperatures and increased occurrence of drought in the sub-tropical arid zone). In fact most ecological problems are considered by both social and natural scientists to begin with increases in human activity, especially as a result of population growth. But the term most commonly used to discuss the relationship between human activity and the natural conditions is "adaptation"!
The concept of adaptation begs the question of mal-adaptation. Otherwise, how would any problems arise? But if both adaptation and mal-adaptation occur, how do we know when to expect one and when the other? If we cannot know, then neither is equivalent to a law. In an applied science, especially, neither concept is useful unless we can predict when one will occur and when the other. The combination of genetics and the theory of natural selection makes it possible to deal with this problem in evolutionary biology, but (so far at least) we have no equivalent in the other fields of biology. let alone in the social sciences.
Adaptation is generally defined in both the natural and the social sciences as a process whereby an organism seemingly fits better into its environment and way of life. (See, for example, Bateson 1979, p. 227.) The mechanisms whereby biological adaptation occurs (as natural selection of phenotypes, due to environmental pressures, leads to change in genotypes) by genetic transmission of traits and mutation are reasonably well understood. But when the concept is transferred to the cultural sphere acceptable analogies are difficult to find and little progress has yet been made in the study of them. One extreme position, typical of those who assume adaptation everywhere regardless of all the evidence of mal-adaptation, or who at any rate do not try to explain the incidence of mal-adaptation, re-defines the concept in the framework of systems analysis as the process by which organisms or groups of organisms, through responsive changes in their states, structures, or compositions, maintain homeostasis in and among themselves in the face of both short term environmental fluctuations and long term changes in the composition or structure of their environments (Rapport 1971a, p. 60; cf. 1971b, pp. 23-24).
Such a definition presumably places most entrepreneurial activity beyond the pale of acceptable behavior by dubbing it maladaptive - unless it defines homeostasis so broadly as to comprehend somehow all social change! Perhaps more importantly, it presumably deals only with behaviour, taking no account of intent. A more generally acceptable position, typified by Sahlins (at one stage, 1964), simply uses the concept to draw attention to the effects of non-cultural constraints on human behavior or on cultural processes, whether these constraints are physical, biological, social. demographic or historical. In fact, Sahlins makes the point that the most important constraints on human behaviour are often historical, in that people are seldom able to do more than they have been taught. It is worth noting that the genetic information that sets limits on biological adaptation is of course also in a sense historical (Sahlins 1964, p. 136).
A simple ethnographic example will help us to put these definitions in
Quite commonly, Eskimo culture is cited as an apt, if somewhat extreme, example of how man's cultural capacity allows him to adapt to even the harshest circumstances. At such a gross level of analysis, such statements are unquestionably true, for it is apparent that culture does make the difference between life and death for the Eskimo as it most probably does for every other human being today. (Burnham 1973, p. 93)
The evaluation of culture as adaptive in this sense cannot help us to explain why some behaviour interacts with natural processes more homeostatically, or with greater apparent conservationist concern, than others.
In the context of development the most serious problem with the scientific concept of adaptation lies in its implicit consignment of all human activity which is involved in degradation to the category of maladaptive and (by a short step) irrational behaviour. Attention to the human factor often stops here. It should of course minimally be extended to the point of suggesting an explanation for the irrationality.
Probably the best that can be said in the present state of our understanding is that in the explanation of human behaviour and of culture the concept of adaptation is not very useful. For all behaviour is adaptive in the sense that in a given situation each individual responds to a range of factors (which include both the historical and the psychological) that are not so much ecological or environmental, as contextual. An individual or a group adapts its behaviour to a set of cultural, social and natural factors in which it may see the cultural or social factors as more immediate or important. Over-grazing may make good economic sense for particular individuals or groups in particular situations. but it is likely to be branded as maladaptive and thus irrational. Since enforcement is often unsuccessful in the long run, it might be more promising to investigate the causes of such maladaptive behaviour and seek to remove them by legislating incentives or disincentives. But our consciousness is so pervaded and conditioned by the values of science that we tend to assume adaptation even when we have evidence against it. Like ecology, therefore, adaptation can become a symbol around which we rally but it may not provide an unequivocal basis for action. It is equated with conscious rational or unconscious useful behaviour, but it does not provide a workable recipe for planning.