Most Important Publications


The Most Important Publications of William Emerson Ritter





Listed below are William Emerson Ritter’s fifteen most important publications, as far as I’m concerned. My standard for choosing them as “important” is because they showed the growth, change, and development of his thought.

He had written well over 200 published articles, and continued to write up until he died. He had five unpublished book-length manuscripts when he died, and had boxes of notes on hundreds of topics.

The list below is my purely subjective list, showing the expanding vision of William Emerson Ritter.


Ritter, W.E. (1898). The University, its graduates, and the state. The University of California Chronicle 1, (2).

Ritter published about 20 articles on biological topics before 1898. Many were analyses of the tunicate, a marine invertebrate, of which he was one of the few experts.

However, by 1898, he had taken the role of President of the Alumni Association at the University of California-Berkeley. This role forced him to think more broadly than his tunicates. He had to think through how the university can have an impact on the society at large.

In the article, he made a distinction between education and character development. said that education must build character as well as knowledge. He identified that the “immediate aim of the university is education and promotion of learning; and that its ultimate aim is the development of men and women…” He said that learning for its own sake would create an “aloofness from human affairs, and to selfishness and pride.” He saw that aloofness in many of his fellow scientists. In his life he would speak about this often, but this article was one of the first times he mentions it. This idea—that science could help to develop a more noble society, would be a theme throughout his life.

The very soul of democracy is the faith that man is essentially man and not essentially brutish and bad. That if he is not always noble, he is at least capable of becoming so…


Ritter, W.E. (1901). Some observations bearing on the probable subsidence during recent geological times of the island of Santa Catalina off the coast of Southern California. Science, 14, (354, October 11), 575-577.

Ritter and his colleagues were dredging off of Santa Catalina Island in 1901. He made a remarkable discovery, but it is remarkable that he even noticed it. They found round rocks at forty fathoms–and three quarters of a mile from shore, the same kind of rocks as on the beach. They wondered whether the island was sinking? Or was it a land mass early on in history?

Eleven years later, Alfred Weneger would publish his theory of continental drift. Ritter’s discovery makes perfect sense today, because we know that continents drift.

This is the perhaps the first time that Ritter goes outside his discipline of zoology. He wrote that the geological phenomenon was “of such obvious geological interest that I feel justified in going outside my own province to record them.” Another theme that ran through Ritter’s life was the importance of cross-disciplinary knowledge. At that time, increasing specialization was all the rage, much like today. Ritter stood perpendicular to that idea, believing that ideas from many disciplines gave a broader and more useful picture of the whole. In fact, one of the first people he hired to his seaside laboratory was a physicist.


Ritter, W.E. (1901). Professor Joseph LeConte as seen through his biological work. The University of California Magazine 7, (5). 218-225.

Joseph LeConte wrote the textbook that first excited Ritter about science. Ritter found the thinking of LeConte so riveting that he chose to move from Wisconsin to California so that he could study with LeConte. Ritter studied with LeConte, and then became a professor in LeConte’s department.

Joseph LeConte died of heart failure in 1901, as he camped in Yosemite, the place he dearly loved.

Ritter was one of the people who eulogized him in print, writing to honor LeConte’s legacy. Clearly, Ritter saw much of himself in LeConte, perhaps using him as a model for the professional scientist.

“[LeConte’s] way of seeing natural phenomena in the large and his remarkable power of finding the unifying principles and laws underlying them… is show in its full breadth in biology… the contemplation of forces and processes was to him the thing of supreme interest everywhere.”

LeConte went against the prevailing tradition in biology, which was to look only at the structure of animals. LeConte saw biology as forces and processes. This view is one which Ritter took to heart, and became something that followed him throughout his career. The view of biology as forces and processes is a systems perspective; Ritter was one of the first biologists to advocate this view.


Ritter, W.E., Hill, E.A., Whipple, G.M., Starr, M.A., Trelease, W., & Greely, A.W. (1902). The Carnegie institution. Science, 16, (410, November 7), 731-739.

In this article, we see one of the first expressions of another thread through Ritter’s life. He was passionate about getting information to those who need it.

In this article, he comments about a grant that the Carnegie Institution gave to the Marine Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Tactfully and respectfully, he questions the wisdom of the grant money going into the buildings at Woods Hole. Rather, he suggests that the money might be better spent in funding ways to distribute the new discoveries in science.

…to help along the great class of scientific publication which cannot be carried by publishing houses on a strictly commercial basis would be one of the very important aides that the institution might render science.”

Nineteen years later, in 1921, Ritter would become the scientific supervisor of the Science Service, an organization dedicated to distribute science discoveries to those who need it.


Nutting, C.C., Ritter, W.E., & Jordan, D.S. (1903). The proposed biological laboratory at the Tortugas. Science, 17, (438, May 22), 823-826.

Ritter here writes a short advocacy article for a seaside laboratory in Tortuga. He writes about the purposes of such a laboratory, and how it could cut a wide swath of biological knowledge—“the sum total of life.” He suggests that the work done in American seaside laboratories has been altogether too narrow.

It was later this year, only a few months from his writing, that the wealthy businessman E.W. Scripps gave Ritter money to start his own laboratory in California. Ritter’s goal in that laboratory was to study the sum total of life along the California coast.


Ritter, W.E. (1905, May). Organization in scientific research. Popular Science, 67, 49-53.

In the middle 1800s and before, most scientists had training in a multitude of fields. They frequently taught classes in all fields of science. Toward the late 1800s, the trend became to train in one discipline, and drill down with a laser-like focus in that discipline. This made some sense, since the scientific disciplines were growing too fast to remain experts in all of the disciplines.

However, this hyper-narrowness created a problem, too. It became increasingly clear that scientists couldn’t think outside their own discipline, and thus they would only have one set of principles with which to work with a problem. Ritter addresses this fragmentation. He says that all sciences benefit from workers in neighboring fields. However, the best use of a new process is not a biologist who has learned some geology, or a chemist who has learned some math. Rather, “it is a question not merely of preliminary training, but as well of point of view, to be reached only by continuous and long continued living in a particular realm of knowledge until a certain habit of mind peculiar to that realm has been acquired.”

He said that we need a collection of differently-trained scholars surrounding different problems. “It is obvious then, that increased coordination of effort would be distinctly advantageous… at least, it is a sine qua non to considerable progress in the future… Organization around single large problems, or groups of closely related problems, with the two binding elements of talent for organizing and money for sustaining, I believe to be the direction in which we must look in the future more than we have been looking hitherto.”

This was, of course, a guiding principle with which he started the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.


Ritter, W.E. (1906, July 28). The woman problem in Japan. The Japan Weekly Mail.

The University of California gave Ritter a sabbatical in January of 1906, and so he and his wife Mary traveled to Japan to study at the seaside laboratories there. He grew uncomfortable with the way women were treated in Japan, and so wrote an impassioned article on women’s rights for a English newspaper in Japan.

Furthermore, it being the intent of the fundamental law [all men are created equal] to hold her as a free and independent agent in many capacities, and she having proved in these her ability to use her opportunities well, why should there be any legal restrictions whatever thrown about her that do not ensnare him also? Why should she not go up and down in all the walks of life subject only to the laws and limitations which bind him? Why should she not insist upon her right and ability to participate in every activity open to her brother? Why should she be denied the right to vote? Why should she not have an equal chance in the affairs of state? Why not in the higher professions that the custom of ages has arbitrarily allotted to men? Indeed, do not the best interests of the Nation and Humanity call for her presence in these places? Further, is it not a violation of personal liberty, the very essence of Americanism, to vouchsafe to the man by law any right or privilege whatever not likewise given to the woman? By denying the franchise to her the law seems to class her with criminals and imbeciles, and thus not only is injustice done, her, but she is degraded.”

No doubt, he was addressing American society as well as Japanese society. It wasn’t until 1919, 13 years later, that the United States Congress passed the 19th Amendment, the right of women to vote (it was ratified in 1920).

Ritter identifies a somber insight into the human soul, as he discusses the problem of the lack of women’s rights. “Unfortunately, however, it is not the way of man to live up to the level of his moments of deepest insight.”


Ritter, W.E. (1909, March). Life from a biologist’s standpoint. Popular Science Monthly, 75, 174-190.

One of the questions in the late 1800s and early 1900s was, “What is life?” Was life just a combination of chemicals that mix together and spontaneously form life? This school of thought was called Mechanism. They believed there was nothing terribly unusual about life—if you just get the right elements, life starts like a machine will start.

The arch-enemy of the Mechanists were the Vitalists. The Vitalists said that life was something spiritual, guided by God or a God-like entity. They said that there was no way that life could just spontaneously emerge from chemicals—there was a higher power involved.

Ritter advocated a third school of thought to answer the question, “What is life?” His view was organicism. Life was a web of interrelationships, and as such must be studied as a whole. He may have not been the first person to advocate for organicism, but he appears to have named it. If not the most intellectual advocate, he was certainly organicism’s most philosophical advocate. Today, we might call his ideas “systems theory.”

In this article, Ritter enters the fray, arguing against Mechanism, the idea that life is simply the sum of its parts. “As long as the mind of the interpreter is human, the whole truth of a complex natural object or proposition can never be ascertained from knowledge of its components alone… You can never give a full account of any whole in terms of its elements.”

In other articles, he argued against the vitalist school as well. He felt that his crowning literary achievement was his tome on organicism, The Unity of the Organism.

Life, he said, must always be studied as a whole.


Ritter, W.E. (1909, August). Quantity and adaptation of the deep-sea Ascidian fauna. Proceedings, 7th International Zoological Congress, Boston.

The common way to do biology in the late 1800s and early 1900s was to describe the physical characteristics of a particular plant or animal, in exhaustive detail. This process was called morphology. It was an extremely in-depth look at a specimen or specimens. This was the normal process in those days. It is simply what biologists did.

Ritter was an expert on a marine invertebrate family called the Ascidians. Early in his career, like every biologist, he was a morphologist. In fact, he wrote 49 published articles that were morphological in nature—describing in tedious detail the physical characteristics.

This particular article is not terribly important in and of itself. However, this article is significant in that it was the last article Ritter wrote from a morphological perspective. Very abruptly in 1909, he stopped writing morphological analyses and never wrote them again.

Ritter’s perspective was changing. While he could have made a good living teaching at the university and writing his morphological analyses of marine invertebrates, he abruptly stopped. His vision was growing beyond morphology, and becoming deeper, richer, and broader. He began to get a sense of what biology could be, and how it could be useful as a tool to make the world a better place.


Ritter, W.E. (1912, March). The duties of the public of research institutions in pure science. Popular Science Monthly, 80, 51-57.

Ritter’s belief was that science could make the world a better place. Science had it’s own way of thinking, and that kind of thinking was useful in a rapidly changing world. Science advocated questioning and more questioning. Science taught it’s students to hold their own views tentatively until more research was done. Science taught that repeated experiments confirmed an idea. Science taught that research and facts were necessary, and that opinion without regard to fact was dangerous.

In this article, Ritter states: “‘Science for it’s own sake,’ as frequently understood is a false and unrealizable ideal. Science ‘for its own sake,’ art ‘for its own sake’ wealth or anything else ‘for its own sake,’” if held without fundamental qualification, bears the germs of its own degradation if not of its death. Science can no  more live ‘to itself alone’ than can a human being… While I do not for a moment subscribe to the view held by a few, that science is everything, that by and by it will supplant religion, philosophy, ethics, art, and the rest, I am fully persuaded that as civilizations advances it must become ever more and more an underpinning and ally of all these.”

Speaking about science institutions in general, but no doubt with his own institution in mind, he said, “An institution of pure science, on the other hand, should be one the primary aim of which is to extend the bounds of man’s knowledge of nature in a specified field, and to show something of the significance of the new knowledge for the higher life of mankind.”


Ritter, W.E. (1917). Science and an organized civilization. The Scientific Monthly 5 (2, August), 135-145.

Ritter was a disciple of science, and advocated it with a missionary zeal. But then World War I came, and people began to be suspicious of science. Science created mustard gas. The same Science that created the Lusitania, also created the means for its destruction. Science created bombs, machine guns, and all the tools with which to kill people. There was no denying man’s inhumanity to man, and especially there was no denying the use of science to make that inhumanity more effective.

These accusations weighed heavily on Ritter. He redoubled his efforts to suggest that science could still contribute to a better society. Science was not just a tool, said Ritter, but a mode of expression.

Ritter continues to develop his role of science in public policy. He uses science as his organizing theory of life. Science teaches disciplined thought, objectivity, the value of healthy debate. Science teaches listening to other perspectives, the devotion to knowledge, and the importance of questioning one’s own framework from time to time. It is this kind of science—science not as a cauldron of knowledge, but science as a way of thinking—this is what Ritter continues to advocate.

Another important insight about Ritter comes out of this article. Charles Darwin suggested that species that were poorly matched with their environment would die out. New species, that were a better fit with the environment would take over. Darwin talked about biological species, but after Darwin came those who tried to use Darwin’s theory and apply it to the history of civilizations. These were called Social Darwinists, and they suggested that the Europeans were a better people than the native Americans or Africans. That’s why the Europeans and European Americans had such an easy time taking over the civilizations of the Africans or Native Americans. The Europeans, the Social Darwinists said, were simply a better species. Clearly, the beliefs of the Social Darwinists were motivated by racism and ignorance.

Ritter almost never had negative words for anyone. Ritter’s writings and personal interactions were always gentlemanly and kind. However, he had bristlingly harsh words against the Social Darwinists. In several of his writings—and this article was one of his first—he called out the Social Darwinists for what they were: ignorant and racist.


Ritter, W.E. (1918). The higher usefulness of science and other essays. Boston: Richard G. Badger.

The accusations that science helped to create the terrible weapons of World War I continued to weigh heavily on Ritter. To respond to those critics, he put together a book that described the ideals of science. More specifically, it described the ideals of the disciplined thinking used by science. It was this kind of thinking that Ritter advocated.

He began by identifying the theme for the book: know thyself. He returns to this idea often, suggesting that many scientists don’t know themselves and thus they lend politicians the weapons and means to destroy humanity.

Ritter responds to an eminent biologist, Jacques Loeb. When Loeb was asked what has biology to do with human problems, he said “nothing.” This kind of thinking was common for scientists in those days. Scientists tried to divorce themselves from human problems. Ritter suggested that this idea the pinnacle of absurdity.

He explores ethics and the golden rule, and how that always must be a part of science. He suggests that the highest values are not building weapons, but values such as companionship, sympathy, dependence, obligation, love, and human brotherhood.

We seek wisdom, he says, through the temples of religion, art, and science. No one can become wise by worshipping in one temple only.


Ritter, W.E. (1919). The unity of the organism or The organismal conception of life. Boston: Richard G. Badger.

In 1912, Jacques Loeb wrote a book called A Mechanistic Conception of Life. Loeb and Ritter had a polite rivalry over the years. Loeb was one of the leaders of the mechanistic movement, a belief that life could be defined by the chemicals that are a part of it. Loeb was one of the biologists who believed that the purpose of biology was to learn how to control life—kind of a biological engineering. Loeb was bored with the discussions of evolution, and species, and biological organization. He wanted to understand the chemicals that created life so that biologists could learn how to control life. Loeb, in fact, influenced John Watson, who influenced B.F. Skinner.

In response to Loeb, Ritter wrote The Organismal Conception of Life. He argues that life is not simply a cocktail of chemicals, but a system of interrelationships. Ritter had a deep respect for nature and the philosophical meaning for it. Ritter believed this book was his magna carta.


Ritter, W.E. & Bailey, E.W. (1927). The natural history of our conduct. New York: Brace & Company, Inc.

E.W. Scripps was a wealthy businessman, who struck up a friendship with Ritter. They were very different kinds of people. Ritter was gentlemanly and scholarly, while Scripps was gruff and caustic. However, they both shared a passion for science and educating the populace with science discoveries. It was Scripps who funded many of Ritter’s ideas. Early in their relationship, Scripps exclaimed, “Ritter, you’re a zoologist. What is this damned human animal, anyway?” Scripps died in 1926, but Ritter spent the rest of his life working on that question.

The book was designed to be a study of humanity, from the point of view of a naturalist.  Ritter uses the activities of animals to try to understand humans. He explores adaptive activity in humans and animals, as well as maladaptive activities. Ritter believed he was on to something here, comparing similar and dissimilar activities in animals and humans.

Even though Ritter often thought perpendicularly to the traditional mental models of the day, there were places in his life where he is still a product of his times. He refers to Native Americans as “primitive peoples.” He uses the ethnocentric terms “high culture” and “low culture,” with the Native Americans being of low culture. While he was talking about technology rather than culture, it is striking to see Ritter’s cultural blind spot. For someone who could spend 100 pages talking about the reproductive system of the marine sea anemone, he seemed to have a stunning lack of curiosity about cultures that were not as technological as his own.

Throughout the book, he seeks a psychology that stems out of zoology. He is familiar with the early psychological behavioral literature, but it is not giving him what he wants. For the rest of his life, he continues to develop this idea of comparing and contrasting the behavior of animals and the behavior of people. One wonders, if he had been born today, if he would have been a psychologist instead of a zoologist.


Ritter, W.E. (1938). The California woodpecker and I: a study in comparative zoology. University of California Press.

In Ritter’s last book (except for one that was published posthumously), he goes back to ornithology, one of his life long loves. He gives remarkable insight into the behavior of the California Woodpecker. But more than that, he uses the woodpecker as a way to talk about humanity. He is still trying to answer E.W. Scripps’ haunting question, “What is this damn human animal, anyway?”

At age 81, the tone in his book is far less somber and serious than his early publications. With age came wisdom, and he was able to let his desert-dry wit fill the pages. He writes about ornithology and evolution with more of a lilt than his earlier publications, as if he has nothing more to prove. The full subtitle of the book is A Study in Comparative Zoology, in Which are Set Forth Numerous Facts and Reflections By One of Us About Both of Us. He writes as a zoologist, then a psychologist, and then as a philosopher.




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