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Human ecosystem

  Human ecosystems are complex cybernetic systems that are increasingly being used by ecological anthropologists and other scholars to examine the ecological aspects of human communities in a way that integrates multiple factors as economics, socio-political organization, psychological factors, and physical factors related to the environment.



The term ‘ecosystem’ was coined in 1930 by Roy Clapham, to denote the physical and biological components of an environment considered in relation to each other as a unit. British ecologist Arthur Tansley later refined the term, describing it as the interactive system established between biocoenosis (a group of living creatures) and their biotope (the environment in which they live).

Central to the ecosystem concept is the idea that living organisms are continually engaged in a set of relationships with every other element constituting the environment in which they exist. The human ecosystem concept is then grounded in the deconstruction of the human/nature dichotomy, and the emergent premise that all species are ecologically integrated with each other, as well as with the abiotic constituents of their biotope. Ecosystems can be bounded and discussed with tremendous variety of scope, and describe any situation where there is relationship between organisms and their environment.

A system as small as a household or university, or as large as a nation state, may then be suitably discussed as a human ecosystem. While they may be bounded and individually discussed, (human) ecosystems do not exist independently, but interact in a complex web of human and ecological relationships connecting all (human) ecosystems to make up the biosphere. As virtually no surface of the earth today is free of human contact, all ecosystems can be more accurately considered as human ecosystems.

The human ecosystem concept draws from disciplines such as ecology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, political science, cybernetics, and psychology, seeking to understand the complex system of relationships in which humans interact. These relationships exist within nested hierarchies of context with which individuals and human aggregates interact with differentially. Most analysis of human ecosystems focuses on particular contexts of relationship, such as biological, individual, socio-cultural, environmental et cetera.

World Systems Theory, as proposed by Immanuel Wallerstein, is an example of a systemic analysis of the socio-political and economic dimensions of the global network of human ecosystems. The human ecosystem unit of analysis is perhaps most often used by ecological anthropologists, and is apparent in the work of scholars such as Roy Rappaport, who has explored ritual cycles and communication within human ecosystems (Rappaport, 1999). Gregory Bateson, E.N. Anderson, Mary Douglas, Keith Basso, and Paul Nadasdy are some other anthropologists who have employed the human ecosystem as a unit of analyses.


Through the emergence and subsequent evolution of cybernetics human ecosystems are increasingly recognized as complex cybernetic systems. Cybernetics, the study of communication and control in living beings and machines, was established as a cohesive discipline in the 1940s by Norbert Wiener (who coined the term), Warren McCulloch and others. The discipline is not grounded in any one empirical field, but is concerned with the study of systems and control in an abstracted sense. The emphasis is on the functional relations that hold between the different parts of a system, rather than the parts themselves. This is directly applicable to any inquiry involving human ecosystems, which emphasize the relationships between humans and the biotic and abiotic constituents of the environments they inhabit. Such relationships include the transfer of information, nested hierarchies of context and meaning, feedback, emergent phenomena, self-organization and autopoiesis. These phenomena are perhaps most holistically identified and interpreted by means of cybernetic analysis.


The transmission and transformation of information is central to the inquiry of human ecosystems. As scholars such as E.N. Anderson illustrate (1996), humans certainly appear to be specialized information processors. In the context of human ecosystems, information is viewed as a type of input to or output from an organism or designed device. This idea stems from information theory, the foundations of which were laid by Claude Shannon, who published an influential paper titled “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” in 1948. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s cognitive psychology became concerned with information processing, in attempt to understanding human thinking. This approach considers cognition as being essentially computational. During this time cybernetics was emerging, also concerned with the nature and transmission of information.

Information processing is generally considered as the changing (processing) of information in any manner detectable by the observer. It can be described as either sequential or parallel, both of which can be either centralized or decentralized (distributed). Cyberneticians have argued that it is a process which describes everything that happens (changes) in the universe, from the falling of a rock (a change in position) to the printing of a text file from a digital computer system. In the 1960s and 1970s cybernetic theory began to permeate anthropology, through the work of Roy Rappaport and Gregory Bateson in particular.

Human ecosystems as complex cybernetic systems

Work by scholars such as Roy Rappaport, Gregory Bateson, and E.N Anderson has focused of transfer and transformation of information in human ecosystems. Inquiries as such have focused on the ecological and informational aspects of relationships in human ecosystems. In Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) Bateson discusses information as pattern and difference within complex cybernetic systems.

In the 1990s Edwin Hutchins developed a school of psychology known as distributed cognition, which draws heavily from anthropology and sociology, emphasizing the social aspects of cognition. Distributed cognition is directly applicable to studies of human ecosystems, considering systems as sets of representations, and modeling the interchange of information between these representations. These representations can be either in the mental space of the participants or external representations available in the environment. In Cognition in the Wild (1994) Hutchins considers information processing within a bounded human ecosystem in a discussion of distributed cognition on board a naval vessel.

Further reading

  • Anderson, E.N. 1996 “Ecologies of the Heart: Emotion Belief and the Environment.” New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Basso, Keith 1996 “Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache.” Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
  • Bateson, Gregory 1972 “Steps to an Ecology of Mind.” Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
  • Douglas, Mary 1999 “Implicit Meanings: Selected Essays in Anthropology.” London and New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
  • Hutchins, Edwin 1994 “Cognition in the Wild.” MIT Press
  • Nadasdy, Paul 2003 “Hunters and Bureaucrats: Power, Knowledge, and Aboriginal-State Relations in the Southwest Yukon.” Vancouver and Toronto: UBC Press.
  • Rappaport, Roy 1899 “Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity.” Cambridge University Press.


This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Human_ecosystem". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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