Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 47, Issue 2, pp 293–321 | Cite as

From Formation to Ecosystem: Tansley’s Response to Clements’ Climax

  • Arnold G. van der ValkEmail author


Arthur G. Tansley never accepted Frederic E. Clements’ view that succession is a developmental process whose final stage, the climax formation, is determined primarily by regional climate and that all other types of vegetation are some kind of successional stage or arrested successional stage. Tansley was convinced that in a given region a variety of environmental factors could produce different kinds of climax formations. At the heart of their dispute was Clements’ organicist view of succession, i.e., the formation was a complex organism with an ontogeny and phylogeny. As early as 1905, Tansley offered an alternative to Clements’ complex organism, the quasi-organism, but Clements in private and public rejected this compromise. Tansley and other plant ecologists continued to criticize Clements’ theories for the next 20 years, but with no impact on Clements. John Phillips, a South African plant ecologist who was a follower of Clements, published a series of papers in 1934 and 1935 defending Clementsian ecology. These papers were triggered by the publication of a letter by another ecologist working in Africa who claimed that there was a strong correlation between soils and various kinds of climax vegetation, which was contrary to what was predicted by Phillips and Clements. In 1935, Tansley published an attack on Phillips and Clements and their developmental theory of succession. In it, he proposed the concept of the ecosystem as a way to get around Clements’ monoclimax theory by making the physical environment (e.g., soil chemistry, soil texture, soil moisture) as important a factor as climate, plants and other organisms in determining the composition and characteristics of ecological entities, i.e., ecosystems. Tansley’s ecosystem concept quickly replaced Clements’ monoclimax theory as a dominant paradigm in ecology.


Climax Complex organism Ecology Monoclimax Plant ecology Quasi-organism Succession Vegetation 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Ecology, Evolution and Organismal BiologyIowa State UniversityAmesUSA

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