ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS to PhD dissertation

I’m sure there are many important sources of influence and support I don’t recognize or no longer remember. I do remember, though, how exciting it was in 1974 when I noticed in the library stacks a group of four yellow books from C. H. Waddington’s Serbelloni conferences, Towards a Theoretical Biology, and devoured them. Biology took on a new appearance with the realization that there was such an animal (plant? virus) as theoretical biology. Soon after, Alan Roberts, a physicist and freethinker, introduced me to a species that combined my interest in mathematics and ecology.

The Black Rose Co-op took my center of gravity away from the academy for some years. The joys and difficulties of rural work and co-operative life taught me lessons about struggling with the present and prefiguring the future. I still sense the flow of the Mitchell River even though time and geography have put some distance between and that place.

My decision to return to intellectual work and the desire to link theoretical interests with concerns about liberatory social change led me to write to Richard Lewontin. His reply was warm and encouraging; moreover without his advice to apply for admission as a graduate student I wouldn’t be here today. During a year I spent away from Australia before coming to the United States, I learned how hard it was to do intellectual work, supporting yourself by other means and in relative isolation. I was fortunate to spend time with Brian Goodwin, an heir of Waddington’s, in England and Italy. He influenced me to think of organization as developing necessarily out of previous organization, a perspective I carried from Goodwin’s field of developmental biology to ecology.

Coming to the United States, moreover to an elite and privileged ganglion of that beast, generated quite a deal of conflict, insecurity and resistance to dominant practices. A men’s support group (Richard Dunaif, Michael Schwartz and Max Rivers), a support group in biology, and Sharon Weizenbaum helped me work through my responses, rather than simply adjust. The support groups gave way eventually to friendships but it continued to be mostly fellow graduate students who gave attention, perspective and encouragement when I was most doubtful about the (changing) course I was pursuing. Thanks especially to David Glaser and Charlie Puccia, who acted as my surrogate advisory committee for a long time; also to Sonia Sultan, Hamish Spencer, John Carlin, Deborah Gordon, Lisa Lloyd, and Liz Taylor who were ready to comment on unformed ideas, practice talks and draft manuscripts; most of all to Liz, who checked in weekly during the last year when I was mostly out of circulation.

It wasn’t until half way through my graduate studies that I resolved to concentrate on theoretical ecology and not developmental biology. Just as I was shaping my thesis research proposal I became aware of similar work being done by Mac Post and Stuart Pimm at the Environmental Sciences Division of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Jim Drake at Purdue. Jim became a correspondent and fellow traveller through to a Ph.D. on construction of ecological communities. Mac Post convinced me that my project had not been preempted; in fact my three visits to O.R.N.L. were invaluable in connecting me into the current debates in North America around ecological complexity. Don DeAngelis and Mac Post arranged a summer research fellowship for me for the summer of 1984 during which we collaborated on developing the multispecies nutrient utilization/ population interaction model used in the last chapter of the dissertation.

Of course I have been greatly influenced by proximity at Harvard to certain critical thinkers in ecology and evolutionary biology, Richard Levins, Richard Lewontin (my advisors) and Stephen Jay Gould. Discussions with them were valuable but I learned more indirectly, by experience and digestion of their actions and words as academics, scientists, writers and teachers, especially about the difficulties of informing scientific work with social critique.

It was outside the academy again that I found most support for linking my theoretical interests (some of which appear in the dissertation) with my concerns about social change (most of which have not found a place in the dissertation but do, nevertheless, stand behind it). For nearly three years a group that came to be called the Pumping Station has provided a place for serious discourse based on a commitment to a transformation of lived reality, a source of connections to overcome the isolation of critical intellectual work, and through collaborative projects upheld the vision of a future society based on mutual aid and free association. “For me it had great drama with its big heart like a great pumping station (H. Moore). Thanks especially to lain Boal and Brad Bellows.

There are two other friends to whom my gratitude is deep: Ann Blum who gently taught that I had a lot to learn about writing and audience, and from whom I love to learn, and Noirin Malone, who opened many conversations and arguments; these continue even though her life ended abruptly. “She’d had lucky eyes and a high heart, And wisdom that caught fire like dried flax . . .” (W. B. Yeats).

On some more practical concerns, the Harvard Science Center gave moderately generous access to their computing system and the graduate student consultants were always very helpful. Several graduate students in biology also provided assistance in using the computer. Kathy Horton typed most of the drafts and the final version of the dissertation; Chris Fox joined her in the last push. My studies were supported financially by Harvard Grants-in-Aid, by some summer grants from Richard Lewontin and the department, and through reaching in Biology, History of Science and the Core Curriculum, an experience as rewarding intellectually as it was financially.

August 1985
Cambridge, Massachusetts


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

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