This article examines the intertidal ecological research of the commercial lab owner and popular science writer Edward F. Ricketts, best known as the prototype for John Steinbeck’s character “Doc” in the novel Cannery Row (1945). Ricketts’s friendship with Steinbeck and unconventional philosophical style have regrettably overshadowed his scientific work, particularly his novel faunal zonation surveys of the North American Pacific littoral in the 1930s and 1940s. These surveys resulted in a landmark handbook, Between Pacific Tides (1939), designed for novices and specialists alike. Ricketts’s work demonstrates how the place of ecological investigation (Billick and Price)—here Monterey Bay’s pounding surf, storm-tossed debris, eclectic bohemianism, and the collaborative energies at Hopkins Marine Station—“imprinted” West Coast animal ecology. At first, Ricketts adopted the physiological methods and conceptions of ecological holism he had learned at the University of Chicago under mentor Warder C. Allee in the early 1920s. Allee had conducted his investigations of intertidal organisms in the relatively placid bays and estuaries at the Woods Hole research center on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Allee envisioned animal aggregations as higher-order societies guided by “unconscious cooperation” and evolving toward a climax state. Yet Ricketts found that physiochemical factors, such as temperature and salinity, could not explain the distribution of organisms amid the Pacific’s far more precarious rough-and-tumble surf, nor could they account for fierce competition among organisms. Rejecting Allee’s cooperative metaphors, Ricketts came to see community structure as an unintended result of tidepool invertebrates’ Darwinian struggle to occupy resource niches—a “set of sieves” that transferred nourishment from one part of the aggregation to the next, binding it together in interlocking food webs. Through dialogue with Steinbeck about the implications of modern physics during their Sea of Cortez voyage (1940), Ricketts developed a “unified field hypothesis” to conceptualize the dynamic interwovenness created by transfers of metabolic energy. Yet Steinbeck ultimately held fast to a super-organismic understanding of ecological holism—a hierarchical relationship between constituents and the whole that underlays the novelist’s idea of the human “phalanx” in Grapes of Wrath and other works. The article offers new insights about the ecological origins of Steinbeck and Ricketts’s disputes over “non-teleological” reasoning and the pair’s divergent understandings of nature, society, and progressive politics.
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Research Article| April 01 2023
“A Delicate Equilibrium of the Most Complex Sort”: Competition and Community in Edward F. Ricketts’s Tidepool Ecologies, 1923–1948
Thomas M. Lekan
University of South Carolina
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Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences (2023) 53 (2): 147–188.
Thomas M. Lekan; “A Delicate Equilibrium of the Most Complex Sort”: Competition and Community in Edward F. Ricketts’s Tidepool Ecologies, 1923–1948. Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 1 April 2023; 53 (2): 147–188. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/hsns.2023.53.2.147
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