The Importance of Connections and Redundancy in Ecosystems

Last week in BL 495 Research Literature in Biology, my students and I were reading, “The spandrels of San Marco and Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme.” This classic paper by Steven J. Gould and Richard C. Lewontin was written in 1979 and essentially criticizes an idea in evolutionary biology that organisms are only a result of adaptations. The thinking of the adaptationist program would say that everything about an organism is superbly adapted for something. This way of thinking completely minimizes the role that randomness or ancestral genetic constraints would have.

The writers give the human chin as an example. They write, “If we regard the chin as a ‘thing,’ rather than as a product of interaction between two growth fields (alveolar and mandibular), then we are led to an interpretation of its origin (recapitualary) exactly opposite to the one now generally favoured (neotenic).” While this may seem to have a bit of jargon, what they’re saying is that we view every part of an organism individually and look for a specific adaptation via natural selection for those parts, we are apt to miss the formation of the whole from what may be completely separate processes.

René Descartes
René Descartes (1596-1650), French philosopher, mathematician, scientist

When Descartes wrote “Cogito, ergo sum,” which is Latin for “I think, therefore I am” in his Discourse on Method in 1637, he was starting a revolution in how to know about the world. Descartes suggested using analytical mathematics as a way to find truth in the world. Scientists embraced his way of thinking in breaking components of a whole into smaller and smaller items; the so-called Cartesian approach to science. No doubt that this approach has worked very well, especially in aspects like vaccines and medicines. It is this Cartesian approach that Gould and Lewontin criticize in their article.

The Cartesian approach may miss something when it doesn’t view the whole together, and this is the case in ecology, as scientists begin to look at whole ecosystems and the connections in those ecosystems.

To illustrate the importance of connections and the importance of redundancy in a system, I heard an explanation of the ecosystem as an airplane. The story goes like this. Imagine that you are on an airplane, and you look out the window, and you happen to see a rivet pop off of the wing.

Photo courtesy of

Perhaps one rivet doesn’t concern you, and you go back to reading your book, but then as you’re looking out the window again, you see another rivet pop off the wing. Now, your concerned. Perhaps you tell the flight attendant, but what if the flight attendant says, “Yes, that happens all the time – nothing to worry about.” How many rivets must be lost before the wing dismantles and the airplane crashes.


In this story, ecosystems are like airplanes. How many species must be lost before the ecosystem crashes? Perhaps the loss of one species is not a problem. Perhaps it is a problem. The real problem is that we don’t know the ecosystem has crashed until it has. We have no way of knowing how many species can be lost before the ecosystem crashes. Plus, some species may have a larger role for many other species in the ecosystem, and these are called keystone species. Losing one of these keystone species could bring down the entire ecosystem.

Thus, looking at the whole ecosystem becomes important. Strangely, however, this concern for the whole is not always evident, even among ecologists, who should know better.

Photo courtesy of Regis University

Recently, we proposed an organized session at the annual Ecological Society of America meeting. At this session, ecologists from Jesuit institutions were invited to give talks about how the incorporate the Jesuit mission into their ecology classrooms. We titled the session, “Ecology in the Classroom and Care of the Whole Campus.” To those familiar with Ignatian pedagogy, the “care of the whole campus,” references cura personalis, “care of the whole person,” which is an ideal we take seriously at our campuses.


The conference organizers did not understand, and though they accepted our session, they asked us to change the name, which we did. The new title is, “The Value of Students Exploring Ecosystem Services on Urban Campuses.” While most Jesuit institutions are in urban areas, this is not entirely accurate as some are in suburban districts. Additionally, I think something is lost when remove “care of the whole campus,” much as Gould and Lewontin agree that something is missing when we only focus on individual parts. Hopefully, this miss is just one rivet, though, and not enough to bring the whole airplane down.

(Photos above courtesy of

Catherine_KleierAbout the Author

Catherine Kleier, Ph.D., Professor
Department of Biology
Regis University
Read her bio

Read her previous blog Happily Gentrified?

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