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The balance of nature is a theory that proposes that ecological systems are usually in a stable equilibrium (homeostasis), which is to say that a small change in some particular parameter (the size of a particular population, for example) will be corrected by some negative feedback that will bring the parameter back to its original "point of balance" with the rest of the system. It may apply where populations depend on each other, for example in predator/prey systems, or relationships between herbivores and their food source. It is also sometimes applied to the relationship between the Earth's ecosystem, the composition of the atmosphere, and the world's weather.
The Gaia hypothesis is a balance of nature-based theory that suggests that the Earth and its ecology may act as co-ordinated systems in order to maintain the balance of nature.
The theory that nature is permanently in balance has been largely discredited, as it has been found that chaotic changes in population levels are common, but nevertheless the idea continues to be popular. During the later half of the twentieth century the theory was superseded by catastrophe theory and chaos theory.
The concept that nature maintains its condition is of ancient provenance; Herodotus commented on the wonderful relationship between predator and prey species, which remained in a steady proportion to one another, with predators never excessively consuming their prey populations. The "balance of nature" concept once ruled ecological research, as well as once governing the management of natural resources. This led to a doctrine popular among some conservationists that nature was best left to its own devices, and that human intervention into it was by definition unacceptable.
Predator-prey populations tend to show chaotic behavior within limits, where the sizes of populations change in a way that may appear random, but is in fact obeying deterministic laws based only on the relationship between a population and its food source illustrated by the Lotka–Volterra equation. An experimental example of this was shown in an eight-year study on small Baltic Sea creatures such as plankton, which were isolated from the rest of the ocean. Each member of the food web was shown to take turns multiplying and declining, even though the scientists kept the outside conditions constant. An article in Journal Nature stated; "Advanced mathematical techniques proved the indisputable presence of chaos in this food web ... short-term prediction is possible, but long-term prediction is not."
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