Is sustainability just an old wine in a new bottle? No; and yet many of its component ideas were in circulation earlier--perhaps most fully in the concepts of preservation and conservation. In my essay on sustainability for the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, I wrote at length about the similarities and differences among these ideas; I needn't repeat that here. But since I wrote that essay a few years ago, I've come to understand something of my own involvement in the history of this cluster of ideas, a history that goes back not just to the environmental movement of the late 1960s but even further, to my education as an undergraduate, when I studied with a biologist whose name was Oscar Schotté.
Suppose we go back a little in time, then. Conservation ecology, or conservation biology as it was originally was (and sometimes still is) called, began during the environmental movement of the late 1970s. This branch of ecology was founded by Michael Soulé; he is credited with naming it, and his writings on the subject were, in its earliest period, definitive. He aimed to enlist the principles of ecological science with the environmentalist agenda for conservation of species, populations, and ecosystems, in a period of environmental crisis. Conservation biology was an effort at sustainability before the word sustainability became current. Yet even earlier, in the late 1960s, the environmental movement was concerned with the sustainability of the planet in the face of an expanding human population coupled with a limit in the capacity of the earth’s resources to feed them. Moreover, in the 1970s the energy crisis turned the environmental movement to concerns over the finite amount of fossil fuel energy resources and the need to conserve and to adopt, when possible, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Again, the term sustainability was not in use to describe the population crisis or the energy crisis, but the concept was there, embodied partially in the term conservation.
To come to my point: Another, even earlier era in which science was concerned with sustainability occurred just after World War I. A branch of embryology, experimental morphology, turned its attention to a practical problem: how to help wounded soldiers whose limbs had been amputated. It was known that some animals, such as newts, could grow new limbs after one was severed; why not humans? What, in other words, was the secret of limb regeneration? Oversimplifying, experimental morphologists introduced various environmental stimuli such as heat, light, and certain chemical compounds, to embryos see what the effects would be, hoping to find something that would induce regeneration. This branch of science flourished between the World Wars, and then gradually, as time went on and it became clearer that this was an extremely difficult and perhaps unsolvable problem, research money went elsewhere. Experimental morphologists were left to carry on their work with limited funds. Meanwhile, advances in molecular biology rendered this branch of embryology seemingly old-fashioned.
|Schotte in 1970|
|Schotte in 1933|
I had forgotten about Schotté, and I completely forgot the name Spemann, until my search on Schotté's life turned up a couple of very interesting—to me, at least—results. It happened that Spemann had studied with a scientist named Theodor Boveri at Wurzburg, who in turn had studied with Richard Hertwig in Munich, who had studied with Ernst Haeckel (b. 1834) in Jena. I had never heard of Boveri or Hertwig, but Haeckel was known to me as the person who in 1866, the same year he met Darwin, had invented the field of ecology, coining the word and defining it as the study of organisms and their relations to each other and to their environment. Haeckel was a polymath, among other things an artist (see below; the colors were added by someone else), but primarily an embryologist, like Schotté. It occurred to me that in those days embryology and ecological science must have been very close. And it occurred to me that I had been tutored in ecology by someone whose intellectual genealogy went directly back to the inventor of that science.
|One of Haeckel's drawings|
Moreover, to the historians and philosophers of science, discarded lines of research are nevertheless significant. Not only might their experiments be elegant, they may be exemplary, as in the case of Professors Schotté and Spemann. And, sometimes, older ideas come back around in different forms. Experimental morphology, like all ecology, was very much concerned with the effects of the environment on organisms, and vice versa. Today’s geneticists, after decades claiming that genetic programs alone determined animal behavior, now consider the genome rather than individual genes, and the way that the genome interacts with the environment. Sometimes these interactions result in modifications to the genome. In concept, this idea that the environment may modify the genome and resultant behavior is reminiscent of the concept that guided experimental morphologists to introduce environmental changes to the embryo to see what would transpire. And that same concept is apparent in the thinking of conservation ecologists today as they experiment with sustainability.
No wonder, then, that some fifteen years after studying with Professor Schotté, when I was pondering the idea of music as a cultural system while writing the ethnomusicology textbook Worlds of Music, it occurred to me to think of a music culture as an ecological system. To be sure, in graduate school I’d studied cultural anthropology with a professor whose approach was shaped by the field of cultural ecology; that, also, must have steered me in an ecological direction when puzzling over how to think about music as culture. I hadn’t realized until recently, though, how much of a debt I owed to this old-fashioned, experimental morphologist, Oscar Schotté, whose experiment, co-designed with his teacher who went on to win the Nobel Prize, was cited as an example of the most elegant in biology.