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  • 1 The land (and this, economically speaking includes water) in its original state in which it suppli (...)
  • 2 Englishmen John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) were seen as bourgeois philo (...)
  • 3 Maurício Torres, personal communication, September 2017. See, for example, Köche 2005: 61-62.
  • 4 Balée 1998, 2006; also see Szabó 2015.

1Historical ecology is a research program. The idea of the research program in historical ecology is rooted in a materialist interpretation of the relationship between people and the environment. The materialism of historical ecology derives directly from its focus on physicality of inorganic features of Earth and the bodies of living things, which in turn, affects human society instantiated by what in historical ecology are called landscapes. Landscapes themselves are specifically culturally-impacted arrangements of land, water, and biota.1 They can be understood in terms of their biotic diversity, which is a very useful index for understanding the nature of cultural forces that influence the make up of place-based communities and their surroundings, both of the present and in the past, as with archaeological sites and productive landforms thousands of years old that continue to be used for crop production (called, perhaps a little clumsily, landesque capital). The idea of research program should not be taken as a colloquialism or for granted, because it has a discernible history. The great philosopher Imre Lakatos defined research program as a critical scientific substrate of basic propositions upon which a field of intellectual debate could be constructed. Lakatos was an original critic of science and ideas about science. His idea of science was one in which the results of exercises in logic and data-gathering could be freely debated, and the approximations toward reality thereby revealed could be put to test in the light of experience, perhaps even into something that is deemed good, whether in a utilitarian or even Platonic sense, though he did not claim that specifically.2 Part of the problem is Lakatos did not live long enough to finish his philosophical oeuvre, though the concept of research program took hold and remains a cornerstone of contemporary philosophical and sociological thinking, especially perhaps in Brazil.3 The basic propositions are what Lakatos calls “hard-core postulates” and for historical ecology I earlier identified four of these.4 There could be more, but I think these summarize the main framework of the program, succinctly as 1) humans have impacted almost all Earth’s habitable environments in physical or material ways; 2) different societies impact environments in distinctive ways due to differences of their internal ordering and structures; 3) human nature is indifferent to species diversity; 4) total phenomena – global ecology – are the result of uniting the historical ecologies of the world into a single, synthetic matrix – only then can a realistic human footprint, as it has often been called though not empirically described in ecological science, be fully assessed.

  • 5 Popper 1957.

2One ignores at one’s peril the historical part of historical ecology. Historical ecology contains inevitably a theory of history, and that theory has nothing to add to or conflict with evolutionary theory, in fact. It is for this reason that historical ecology for better or worse necessarily would fall under the historicist definition of a social science, as reviewed and rejected by Karl Popper.5 In fact, to carry out good historical ecology as a science, one must embrace an explicit and unapologetically historicist point of view; it is the only path toward understanding realities of human-environment interaction that unfold through time, and without it, activist strategies for environmental and biological protection and preservation are doomed to failure, especially in the world’s biodiversity hotspots, such as tropical forests.

3In historical ecology, the concept of history – and of time in general – is limited to a tribal or hominine frame of reference, where relationships between species and environments take place, if even not more restricted to Homo, or even to the most recent version thereof, us. This relationship exists in a temporal framework that includes all of us – Homo sapiens – and the plurality of landscapes we have inhabited, changed, adapted to, and ultimately, for better or worse, mastered and sometimes even destroyed, by knowledge and behavior, or more specifically, by culture in its physical and material -manifestations. Both enhancement and degradation procedures of the environment are learned in society. And because culture is always changing, understanding change is indispensable also to historical ecology, especially its central concept of landscape transformation. This dynamic is what buttresses human-environmental interaction for long periods of time, the longue durée in the language of the Annales historical school.

  • 6 Descola 2013.
  • 7 Hamilton and Cairns 1961, 467, emphasis mine.
  • 8 Pardini 2012; Rostain 2013, 2016.
  • 9 Fairhead and Leach 1996.
  • 10 In their explicit dismissal of the importance in documenting current diversity as a key to understa (...)
  • 11 Lovejoy 1936, 51.
  • 12 Glacken 1967, 5; Lovejoy 1936, 52.
  • 13 e.g., Balée 2013.

4Historical ecologists are enjoined to understand their intellectual origins, and that means understanding ecology itself. Ecology is a Western concept, and philosophical inquiry into humans and the environment starts in ancient Greece.6 Two principles can help lead the historical ecologist into self-illumination and explicit awareness of her or his thinking as it drives research and method. The natural environment, as with human culture, is perpetually mutating. That is the first principle. In the Cratylus of Plato, Socrates references Heraclitus, who lived in the Fifth century BC, on change: “Heraclitus is supposed to say that all things are in motion and nothing at rest; he compares them to the stream of a river, and says that you cannot go into the same water twice7. The point here is that terms – for rivers, streams, forests, and other things – are never applied simply to spatially and historically (or physically fixed) phenomena. Those phenomena can be captured during moments, as with still photography and other frozen visual representations8; such pictographic records are fundamentally unavoidable for the purpose of recording and proving the trajectory of historical-ecological changes in landscapes and biota. Changes in Guinean landscapes, where human occupation and management are responsible for the rise of forests, have been documented by aerial photography over time, and it is the principal evidence for human-assisted landscape enhancement9. Another important tool for historical ecology is the documentation in situ of extant resources, through methods such as inventory of the living things that exist on the landscape using methods from biology10. Essences or realities of place and occupation of space, as this is perceived, might remain, but the inhabitants and actions occurring therein are ephemeral, mutable, and subject to transformative events, including those involving human agency. They are material things like matter, energy, and organisms, and therefore subject to physical laws, such as entropy (i.e., the universe is becoming increasingly chaotic, or disorganized). The same applies to humans and the landscapes they perceive, classify, manage, adapt to, and live in. Those activities constitute culture. The principle I have in mind here can be read also to refer to the ancient Greek notion of phusis, things in themselves, which have a reality unto themselves, including relational things such as human-environment interactions, whether conscious awareness or intentionality of any measureable amount obtains. They exist whether perceived and labeled, or not, as distinguished from things that actually are perceived, named, and classified by humans (which the Greeks called noumos). A second principle undergirding research in historical ecology is the principle of plenitude, coined by Arthur Lovejoy in 1936. I use the term for indexing human-environmental interactions, and their long-term effects, both on society and landscape. The diversity of organisms – species, varieties of species, and people themselves – was seen by Socrates and his main interpreter, Plato, to have been a good in and of itself: “It takes all kinds to make a world”11. And most important for our immediate purpose, “the world is the better, the more things it contains”12. It should be noted that many societies situated in high biodiversity areas today reflect in their traditional knowledge appreciation for the principle of plenitude13 – it is not strictly a Western idea. The two principles can be summarized as:

5- the environments with which humans interact are constantly changing and

6- maintenance of diversity – both natural and cultural – of these environments is a worthy aspiration by society.

  • 14 cf. Beller et al. 2017.

7These are the principles of historical ecology, not any others14. With these principles in mind, activist programs of resource and landscape conservation, maintenance, and enhancement can be affected if politically, the given cultural and economic obstacles intrinsic to globalization (the world system of our time) can be overcome or held in abeyance.

  • 15 Lakatos 1970, 93.
  • 16 Kidder and Balée 1998.
  • 17 Critiques of historical ecology, especially as concerns Amazonia, have appeared in McMichael et al. (...)

8Although Lakatos noted “social sciences” (like sociology, political science, and social anthropology) are “underdeveloped,” he did not rule them out as possessing research programs, unlike Kuhn’s paradigm concept and Popper’s falsificationism, which sets a virtually impossible bar for most social-science research15. Yet I should add here that historical ecology is not merely social science or natural science: rather, it fuses the two16 Historical ecology, in the world of science, has its supporters and its critics17. Critics tend to hold the effects of the longue durée are nothing but the original or pristine state of species distributions in a primitive, virgin, untouched landscape.

  • 18 Bush et al. 2007; Piperno et al. 2015; also see Barlow et al. 2011; McMichael et al. 2012 who expre (...)
  • 19 Meggers 1954, 1996.
  • 20 Balée et al. 2014; Erickson 2000, 2006, 2008; Heckenberger 2009, Heckenberger et al. 2003, 2008, He (...)
  • 21 Lunt and Spooner 2005.
  • 22 Petty et al. 2015.
  • 23 Crumley et al. 2017.
  • 24 Balée 1998, 2006.

9In Amazonia, some ecologists have argued against the permanence or long-term effects of human primary landscape transformations (where human impacts on initial species turnovers are complete or nearly so) of tropical forests. Paleoecologist Mark Bush and colleagues have proposed that a small group thousands of years ago using no more than 140 hectares for resource extraction would have left no indications in the living vegetation today18. This viewpoint well agrees with cultural ecology and its central concept of the environmental determination of egalitarian societies in the Amazon region, and the authors make explicit reference to the cultural ecology of Betty Meggers19, which held that indigenous Amazonians could not have built permanent structures and had permanent environmental effects because their societies were constrained by restrictions of soil fertility in the terra firme and river meanders where the soil was less impoverished in fertility, preventing the development of sedentism, chiefdoms, states, and empires. One has to ignore the findings of large garden-city like settlements in the Xingu Basin in Brazil, the extensive causeway-mound-raised field systems of the Llanos de Mojos, the long-term autochthonous prehistoric occupations with mound building and Amazon Dark Earth found at in the Tapajoara and Marajoara cultures, the vast earthworks and Amazon Dark Earths in the Central Amazon, and the more than four hundred monumental geoglyphs in southwestern Amazonia and their continuing environmental impacts on vegetation cover, and numerous other clues to complex, social hierarchy, however, to fully buy into that proposal20. That proposal is not only neo-cultural ecology; it’s neo-environmental determinism. Long-term effects of primary landscape transformation in numerous cases require secondary landscape transformations over a series in order to maintain the diversity originally established. Although in the southeastern Australian fragmented woodlands, the effects of past human impacts are still observable more than one hundred years later21, in certain fire-prone areas of Australia and Colorado, secondary landscape transformations by small groups (or institutions) are capable of maintaining the desirable effects already brought about by the original primary landscape transformations22. Applied historical ecology is in fact capable of identifying the effectiveness of such groups and institutions in achieving the aim of maintaining diversity. Indeed, historical ecology is not just a concatenation of methods from diverse fields23 lacking in theory and perspective, though diversity of methods is included. Historical ecology is rather a distinct approach24, with activist implications.

  • 25 Lakatos 1970, 132-133.
  • 26 Lakatos 1970, 133.

10And it is theoretical, and in that sense scientific, if (and it definitely is) a historicist science in the sense of Popper. Historical ecology is constituted by a middle-range body of theory. It is not theory about everything, nor is any other research program in a Lakatosian sense, except the ones that have ultimately failed. Historical ecology as a research program consists of hard-core postulates (what Lakatos refers to as the “negative heuristic, or the hard core of the program”) and a developing body of theory (the “protective belt of auxiliary hypotheses”)25 together with empirical case studies that apply interdisciplinary methodologies to the explanation and interpretation of specific sorts of human-environmental interactions. The time scale of historical ecology perforce is limited, as is the existence itself of Homo sapiens. This body of theory is subject to change and improvement: unexpected findings or “anomalies” have the potential to lead to rethinking and reformulating the “protective belt of auxiliary, observational hypotheses and initial conditions”26. This approach keeps historical ecology from becoming dogmatism. Good science is not dogma; it is rather enlightenment, debate, and progress of knowledge, all within a historicist framework. In this manner, Imre Lakatos is worth quoting again, and somewhat at length:

  • 27 Lakatos 1970: 155.

One must never allow a research program to become a Weltanschauung, or a sort of scientific rigour setting itself up as an arbiter between proof and non proof… what he [Kuhn] calls ‘normal science’ is nothing but a research program that has achieved a monopoly… The history of science has been and should be a history of competing research programs… but it has not been and must not become a succession of periods of normal science: the sooner competition starts, the better for progress.27

  • 28 Latour 1997: 25.

11Historical ecology is not an ecology that participates in a division between natural vs. social sciences; that distinction derives from twentieth century modernism. Bruno Latour well pointed out that “la nature et la société doivent rester absolument distinctes” (“nature and society must be absolutely distinct”) in the idea of what is modern28; Philippe Descola appropriately refers to this modernist distinction between nature and society as “naturalism,” and it is only one kind of knowledge about us and our relationships to other species and other landscapes. Historical ecology is situated in the synthesis, or the interstices of the old modernist dichotomy between nature and culture. And its future progress as a historicist science of humanity and the environment involves nurturing its own body of case studies, theories, and -methodologies within that conceptual crevice, with the ultimate purpose of filling it in with new knowledge and applications that can be of use.

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1 The land (and this, economically speaking includes water) in its original state in which it supplies man with necessaries or means of subsistence ready to hand is available without any effort on his part as the universal material for human labour…” (Marx, p. 284, emphasis mine). The best operational definition to date of landscape, as used in historical ecology, may be found in Marquardt and Crumley (1987).

2 Englishmen John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) were seen as bourgeois philosophers by Karl Marx, who of course rejected any idealism for it could not result in the overthrow of capitalism and its inert hold on the minds of those who lived in one of its most brutal epochs, that is, in the early modern context (namely, England at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution). But Mill had a notion of goodness and happiness that is not perforce in contravention of basic propositions inherent to historical ecology, otherwise a materialist research program: “whatever can be proved to be good, must be so by being shown to be a means to something admitted to be good without proof. The medical art is proved to be good, by its conducing to health… The art of music is good, for the reason, among others, that is produces pleasure…” (Mill 1864: 608). Species diversity, in historical ecology, is an assumed good.

3 Maurício Torres, personal communication, September 2017. See, for example, Köche 2005: 61-62.

4 Balée 1998, 2006; also see Szabó 2015.

5 Popper 1957.

6 Descola 2013.

7 Hamilton and Cairns 1961, 467, emphasis mine.

8 Pardini 2012; Rostain 2013, 2016.

9 Fairhead and Leach 1996.

10 In their explicit dismissal of the importance in documenting current diversity as a key to understanding what happened in the past, and how humans may have affected extant local (alpha) diversity, Piperno et al. (2015) are fundamentally in error, as noted in the insightful critique in the same issue of the same journal by Peter Stahl (2015).

11 Lovejoy 1936, 51.

12 Glacken 1967, 5; Lovejoy 1936, 52.

13 e.g., Balée 2013.

14 cf. Beller et al. 2017.

15 Lakatos 1970, 93.

16 Kidder and Balée 1998.

17 Critiques of historical ecology, especially as concerns Amazonia, have appeared in McMichael et al. 2012; Peres et al. 2010; Piperno et al. 2015, all of which is already prefigured in Meggers (1954, 1996), who originated environmental determinism for Amazonia as a culture area.

18 Bush et al. 2007; Piperno et al. 2015; also see Barlow et al. 2011; McMichael et al. 2012 who express similar viewpoints and my response to them in Balée 2013). The neo-environmental determinist position has been fundamentally rejected most recently in an exhausive survey of Amazonian “domesticated” forests (Levis et al. 2018).

19 Meggers 1954, 1996.

20 Balée et al. 2014; Erickson 2000, 2006, 2008; Heckenberger 2009, Heckenberger et al. 2003, 2008, Heckenberger and Neves 2009.

21 Lunt and Spooner 2005.

22 Petty et al. 2015.

23 Crumley et al. 2017.

24 Balée 1998, 2006.

25 Lakatos 1970, 132-133.

26 Lakatos 1970, 133.

27 Lakatos 1970: 155.

28 Latour 1997: 25.

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William Balée

Tulane University, USA,

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