Introduction: Integration in Human Ecology

Two themes will be addressed throughout this essay. The first is that there is both a need and an opportunity for greater integration in the discipline of human systems ecology. The second is that the tools are already available to achieve greater integration, especially if it is recognized that human ecosystems are predominantly evolving and dynamic information-ecosystems. Our task here is to conceptually explore the implications of this realization, in search of a broader understanding of the nature of human ecosystems. But first we must lay out a framework for the development of theory in the service of disciplinary integration. Toward this goal, this essay is divided into two main sections. The first section is concerned with the methods and rationale for developing integrative theory in human ecology. The second section applies these methods to sketching some of the components of a nascent theory of human ecosystems, our initial working experiment in the utility of disciplinary integration in human ecology.

The task of understanding humans has traditionally been rather strictly divided. The humanities study the informational aspects of human societies--art, religion, literature, history--while biologists and a few ecologists and anthropologists tackle physical, medical, behavioral and cognitive components. We propose that to begin to understand human systems, a human ecology paradigm2 must be developed that integrates these two historical trajectories. The discipline of anthropology has been at the intersection of these two trajectories since its conception and is thus a good place to prescribe the radical integration of sociocultural ecology and biophysical ecology.

To get a feel for what an integrated human ecology might look like we offer the following introductory preview. After examining each on its own, try to look simultaneously at the four graphical conceptualizations of human systems presented in Figures 1a through 1d. The goal of this exercise is to promote the kind of radical synthesis needed for a truly integrated human ecology. Each of these models adds unique conceptual constructs and graphic representations of the problems and potentials of the human condition.

H. T. Odum's model (Figure 1a) abstractly delineates the actors in the system of interest, the relevant flow of energy, and depicts the concept of energy upgrading across the subsystems. Forrester (Figure 1b) is more successful at depicting the information network, the cumulative effect of flows and their informational triggers. Larkin's chart of the Christian spirit world (Figure 1c) is composed of highly abstracted (moral) relations and flows between supernaturals and humans in a metaphysical universe. Depicting a particular belief system at a particular time and place in history, this figure is a good diagrammatic example of the kind of informational systems that humans create and operate within. Robins' model (Figure 1d), inspired by the Church of the Subgenius, presents surreal graphic narrative, a postmodern belief system in perverse parallel to Larkin's Christian representation of the spiritual universe. Robins uses traditional and postmodern techniques, such as humor and confronting the strangeness of the familiar. This brings home the importance of creative imagination, human perversities and fictitious relationship in the formation and function of human ecosystems. Our position with regard to method-for-theory is that a synthetic understanding of human ecology must integrate the creative/imaginary/supernatural systems with those previously recognized as ecology sensu stricto.

To help imagine that a synthesis of these diverse aspects of human ecology is possible, we offer Rappaport's (1971,1984) model of ritual regulation and ecosystem function among the Maring, a horticultural people of the New Guinea Highlands (Figure 1e). Here, complex relationships with a powerful spirit world are integrated in a holistic understanding of the supernatural belief system, community and inter-group social relations, and local subsistence activities. A human ecosystems theory premised on the methodological prescription of radical synthesis must begin where Rappaport left off. All relevant components of human ecology, i.e. physical, biological, social and cultural (including spiritual) must be integrated in the development of models that attempt to describe, and ultimately understand, human ecosystems.

Recommendation note for reading the rest of this essay
After perusing the six introductory system illuminations, you may wish to go directly to Section II, in which the prelude to human ecosystem theory is laid out. After skimming this section, you can go back to Section I: Method for Theory and entertain the document in its entirety.

  • 2. A paradigm is a worldview, belief system, series of assumptions, methods and techniques, and exemplars for problem solution held in common by a scientific community (cf. Khun 1970).

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