Arthur G. Tansley’s “new psychology” and its relation to ecology
Abstract. In 1935, A. G. Tansley, who was knighted later, proposed the ecosystem concept. Nevertheless, this concept was not without predecessors. Why did Tansley’s ecosystem prevail and not one of its competitors? The purpose of this article is to pin the distinguishing features of Tansley’s ecosystem down, as far as the published record allows. It is an exercise in finding the difference that made a difference. Besides being a pioneering ecologist, Tansley was an adept of psychoanalysis. His interest even led him to visit Sigmund Freud in Vienna for a while. Psychologists had to regard the mind as an entity in its own right, while knowing that it truly was part of a larger whole (body + mind), because the causal relation between body and mind was unknown. This lead Tansley to conclude that psychologists must not objectify the system under study, have to search for causes within their own field, and must not speculate unless this serves a scientific purpose. In 1925, Tansley defended psychoanalysis in a prolonged controversy against a concerted attack criticizing its speculative content and poor scientific standing. This could have been the reason why Tansley kept his ecosystem free of speculative content and unscientific connotation. The competing ecosystem-like concepts, however, have contained philosophical speculation, non-deterministic properties like vitalism or entelechy, or have been burdened with unscientific connotations. Hence, rigorous restraint distinguished the ecosystem concept and made it ready for use by later researchers.