The Tidy Gene: Why We Must Resist the Urge to Simplify Nature

A major impact on ecological function is the human requirement to simplify nature. Embracing the messiness of natural areas might be a good thing.

Visiting rural properties to give advice on the management of natural areas I am often confronted with the results of what I call the ‘neatness gene’.

To some degree, all humans seem to have the desire to impose order on nature. 

This can be seen in town as manicured lawns and in the country as large areas of one crop or as pasture consisting of one or only a few grass species.

Many a time I have arrived to look at a piece of bush that the landholder is keen to manage to be told with some pride that “I got in and tidied up a bit”. To my dismay what I see is a patch of forest that should be characterised by several layers of vegetation – forbs and grasses, shrubs, young trees with a canopy of mature trees – reduced to a park-like stand of just those mature trees.

Not only does this reflect a misunderstanding of what natural bush is, it gives a glimpse of the primal need for humans for a particular landscape ‘look’.

What humans find attractive is remarkably similar across the world. Think art, music, food, popular culture…other humans!

So it is with landscapes, city parks across the world follow similar themes – open spaces of mown grass interspersed with trees. Often evenly spaced trees. Research shows that even humans who do not live in landscapes like this prefer these savanna-like landscapes. 

Why? Because this is the landscape type that our species Homo sapiens evolved on. This is our ancestral home.

So this ‘savanna look’ gets unwittingly imposed on where we live. We mow, we hedge and we plant…in neat rows.

The point is, not every habitat looks like a savannah. Most do not. Ecology often functions best in a seemingly random assemblage of many species.

Like that bushland I go out to look at.

Bushland, forests, swamps and coral reefs are generally not neat – they are seemingly random collections of a myriad of life forms – they are to the human mind, messy, and our instinct is to tidy up

When we tidy up nature, we simplify ecology.

This simplification leads to a decline in the diversity of organisms and the loss of ecological function. Ecological function is what delivers ecosystem services – clean water, fresh air, food and fibre – all the things that are essential for life.

We would all be better off if we let nature organise itself and resist that tidy gene.

What sustainably FED suggests

The tidy gene is prevalent. 

It impacts land use, land management and the local park. It is also about control and even arrogance that humans can determine everything about the environment.

The urge to tidy is also a tendency to simplify and this reduces the complexity of ecological systems and this we know, reduces their resilience. 

Be wary of the tidy gene. Its expression may not be sustainable.

Hero image modified from a photo by Devon Daniel on Unsplash


Chris is a latecomer to ecology but has happily landed where he should have been all along as an ecological practitioner in his bush regeneration business. When not out passionately managing land, trawling the evidence on nutrition, diet and health or carefully advising NGOs and government, he grows plants in his commercial nursery

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