The Philosophy of “Doc” Ricketts

Photo by Ed Ricketts Jr. - 1947

Photo by Ed Ricketts Jr. – 1947

Over seventy five years ago, a group of young intellectuals gathered around their Guru on Cannery Row and discussed ideas!

The revolving group included people like Joseph Campbell who was later to become a world famed Mythologist. His later writings, (very much influenced by the “Guru”), became fundamental texts for psychologists and others – including movie maker George Lucas who says: “If I hadn’t read Joseph Campbell, I’d probably still be working at trying to write STAR WARS.”
On the Beach near Hopkins Marine Station. Courtesy of the Pat Hathaway Collection

Another member of the Lab Group was John Steinbeck who went on to become one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. He too was vastly influenced by the goings on in the group; and especially by the “Guru” – Edward Flanders Robb Ricketts. You may know him better as “Doc” – from Steinbeck’s book Cannery Row.

Ed Ricketts was a marine biologist. He was also an ecologist and environmentalist who was “light years” ahead of his time. The meeting spot on Cannery Row was the Pacific Biological Laboratory. The world now knows this little unimposing place as “Doc’s Lab.” Folks who gathered there to discuss ideas called themselves “The Lab Group.”

Much of what was discussed in the Lab ran along the lines Ed Ricketts’ own personal philosophy regarding the nature of things. He called it “The Organic Universe”; a philosophy centered around relationship between everything in the environment according to universal laws of cause and effect. Ricketts related it all to his own world of marine biology.

Ricketts drew a parallel between microscopic marine life – such as a cluster of coral banding together for protection -and humans gathering together in families, neighborhoods, cities and nations.

Small towns grow into cities. People break away and another small town is formed. One industry declines and another grows even larger in its place. Plant an apple seed – get an apple tree. Plant a poverty thought – get a ghetto. Plant a growth thought – get an industry. People tend to gather in groups with common thoughts. Ricketts saw a great correlation between all this – and everything else.

When Monterey was known as the “Sardine Capitol of the World”, it was Ricketts who warned against over fishing. He said the Portuguese had done the same thing around the turn of the century; and thus destroyed that country’s industry. No one listened! And then, suddenly, the Silver Harvest “disappeared.”

Various theories emerged with regard to where all the sardines had gone (Ocean warming. Ocean cooling. Migratory pattern changes. Predators. Agricultural pesticides from Salinas Valley agriculture. Etc!!!) The theories were as abundant as the sardines were not. In the midst of the melange – a reporter asked Ricketts where HE thought the sardines had gone. Ed replied: “Well, they’re all in cans!” Now, the gold of the Monterey Bay tourist industry has eclipsed the wealth of the silver harvest it replaced.

Pacific Biological Laboratory "Doc's Lab"

Pacific Biological Laboratory “Doc’s Lab” Photo Courtesy of David & Jean Nale


Thoughts and things gather and grow in relationship to one another. There is a fundamental relationship between everything. It centers on continual change and growth. This is the Organic Universe! Philosophy – according to “Doc” Ricketts!

And, “Doc’s” ideas are still in evidence today. They just take different forms. Witness what happens when the status quo is shaken by the closure of Fort Ord – an economic mainstay for many decades. People band together and new ideas spring up for even greater growth. A great university is forged where soldiers used to train for war (California State University at Monterey Bay. 

And, in Salinas the Steinbeck Center is the core of a redevelopment project underway three blocks from where John Steinbeck was born and raised. The Center is a Community and International gathering spot devoted to exploring universal ideas found in the works of John Steinbeck.

Many of those universal ideas were first planted and raised in the mind of Steinbeck during those gatherings around the “guru” in the Lab on Cannery Row.

Of this museum honoring the native son in the city where they used to burn his books – Ed Ricketts would probably smile and say something like he used to say when his friend John Steinbeck would get caught up on the HOW and WHY of things. “Just remember, John – Is Things Are!” All Things work together! The nature of nature is growth and change.

Some folks might call this philosophical edition of Harvest a discourse on “Sociology.” Others would liken it to “Ecology.” Joseph Campbell called it “Mythology.” Ed Ricketts related it to “Biology.” And, many today would label it as so called “New Age Thought.”

“New Age,” indeed! Ideas bandied about on Cannery Row three quarters of a century ago. It would seem that the bottom line is: No matter how many times we try to re-invent it, the wheel comes out round – every time.

© Copyright 1997 Roger Powers. All Rights Reserved.

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