The ‘balance of nature’ is an enduring concept. But it’s wrong. From the ancient Greeks to the Lion King, people have sought balance in nature—but the real world isn’t like that.

Ecologists shifted away from community-based sociological models to increasingly mathematical, individualist theories. And, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the phrase balance of nature largely disappeared from the scientific lexicon. “Ecologists,” said Kricher, “had a tacit understanding that the [phrase] was largely metaphorical.”

The public, however, still employs the phrase liberally. The expression is often used one of two ways, said Cuddington. Sometimes the balance is depicted as fragile, delicate, and easily disturbed. Other times it’s the opposite—that the balance of nature is so powerful that it can correct any imbalances on its own. According to Cuddington, “they’re both wrong.”