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History of ecology

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Ecology is generally spoken of as a new science, having only become prominent in the second half of the 20th Century. Nonetheless, ecological thinking at some level has been around for a long time, and the principles of ecology have developed gradually, closely intertwined with the development of other biological disciplines. Thus, one of the first ecologists may have been Aristotle or perhaps his student, Theophrastus, both of whom had interest in many species of animals. Theophrastus described interrelationships between animals and between animals and their environment as early as the 4th century BC (Ramalay, 1940).


18th and 19th century ~ Ecological murmurs

The botanical geography and Alexander von Humboldt

Throughout the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, the great maritime powers such as Britain, Spain, and Portugal launched many world exploratory expeditions to develop maritime commerce with other countries, and to discover new natural resources, as well as to catalog them. At the beginning of the 18th century, about twenty thousand plant species were known, versus forty thousand at the beginning of the 19th century, and almost 400,000 today.

These expeditions were joined by many scientists, including botanists, such as the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt is often considered a father of ecology. He was the first to take on the study of the relationship between organisms and their environment. He exposed the existing relationships between observed plant species and climate, and described vegetation zones using latitude and altitude, a discipline now known as geobotany.

In 1804, for example, he reported an impressive number of species, particularly plants, for which he sought to explain their geographic distribution with respect to geological data. One of Humboldt's famous works was "Idea for a Plant Geography" (1805).

Other important botanists of the time included Aimé Bonpland.

The notion of biocoenosis: Wallace and Möbius

Alfred Russel Wallace, contemporary and competitor to Darwin, was first to propose a "geography" of animal species. Several authors recognized at the time that species were not independent of each other, and grouped them into plant species, animal species, and later into communities of living beings or biocoenosis. The first use of this term is usually attributed to Karl Möbius in 1877, but already in 1825, the French naturalist Adolphe Dureau de la Malle used the term societé about an assemblage of plant individuals of different species.

Warming and the foundation of ecology as discipline

While Darwin focussed exclusively on competition as a selective force, Eugen Warming devised a new discipline that took abiotic factors, that is drought, fire, salt, cold etc., as seriously as biotic factors in the assembly of biotic communities. Biogeography before Warming was largely of descriptive nature - faunistic or floristic. Warming’s aim was, through the study of organism (plant) morphology and anatomy, i.e. adaptation, to explain why a species occurred under a certain set of environmental conditions. Moreover, the goal of the new discipline was to explain why species occupying similar habitats, experiencing similar hazards, would solve problems in similar ways, despite often being of widely different phylogenetic descent. Based on his personal observations in Brazilian cerrado, in Denmark, Norwegian Finnmark and Greenland, Warming gave the first university course in ecological plant geography. Based on his lectures, he wrote the book ‘Plantesamfund’, which was immediate translated to German, Polish and Russian, later to English as ‘Oecology of Plants’. Through its German edition, the book had immense effect on British and North American scientist like Arthur Tansley, Henry Chandler Cowles and Frederic Clements[1].

Darwinism and the science ecology

It is often held that the roots of scientific ecology may be traced back to Darwin[2]. This contention may look convincing at first glance inasmuch as On the Origin of Species is full of observations and proposed mechanisms that clearly fit within the boundaries of modern ecology (e.g. the cat-to-clover chain – an ecological cascade) and because the term ecology was coined in 1866 by a strong proponent of Darwinism, Ernst Haeckel. However, Darwin never used the word in his writings after this year, not even in his most “ecological” writings such as the foreword to the English edition of Hermann Müller’s The Fertilization of Flowers (1883) or in his own treatise of earthworms and mull formation in forest soils (The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms, 1881). Moreover, the pioneers founding ecology as a scientific discipline, such as Eugen Warming, A. F. W. Schimper, Gaston Bonnier, F.A. Forel, S.A. Forbes and Karl Möbius, made almost no reference to Darwin’s ideas in their works[3]. This was clearly not out of ignorance or because the works of Darwin were not widespread, but because ecology from the beginning was concerned with the relationship between organism morphology and physiology on one side and environment on the other, mainly abiotic environment, hence environmental selection. Darwin’s concept of natural selection on the other hand focussed solely on competition[4]. Despite most portrayals of Darwin conveying him as a non-aggressive recluse who let others fight his battles, Darwin remained all his life a man nearly obsessed with the ideas of competition, struggle and conquest – with all forms of human contact as confrontation[5][6].

Early 20th century ~ Expansion of ecological thought

The biosphere - Eduard Suess, Henry Chandler Cowles, and Vladimir Vernadsky

By the 19th century, ecology blossomed due to new discoveries in chemistry by Lavoisier and de Saussure, notably the nitrogen cycle. After observing the fact that life developed only within strict limits of each compartment that makes up the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere, the Austrian geologist Eduard Suess proposed the term biosphere in 1875. Suess proposed the name biosphere for the conditions promoting life, such as those found on Earth, which includes flora, fauna, minerals, matter cycles, et cetera.

In the 1920s Vladimir I. Vernadsky, a Russian geologist who had defected to France, detailed the idea of the biosphere in his work "The biosphere" (1926), and described the fundamental principles of the biogeochemical cycles. He thus redefined the biosphere as the sum of all ecosystems.

First ecological damages were reported in the 18th century, as the multiplication of colonies caused deforestation. Since the 19th century, with the industrial revolution, more and more pressing concerns have grown about the impact of human activity on the environment. The term ecologist has been in use since the end of the 19th century.

The ecosystem: Arthur Tansley

Over the 19th century, botanical geography and zoogeography combined to form the basis of biogeography. This science, which deals with habitats of species, seeks to explain the reasons for the presence of certain species in a given location.

It was in 1935 that Arthur Tansley, the British ecologist, coined the term ecosystem, the interactive system established between the biocoenosis (the group of living creatures), and their biotope, the environment in which they live. Ecology thus became the science of ecosystems.

Tansley's concept of the ecosystem was adopted by the energetic and influential biology educator Eugene Odum. Along with his brother, Howard Odum, Eugene P. Odum wrote a textbook which (starting in 1953) educated more than one generation of biologists and ecologists in North America.

Ecological Succession - Henry Chandler Cowles

Main article: Ecological succession

At the turn of the 20th century, Henry Chandler Cowles was one of the founders of the emerging study of "dynamic ecology", through his study of ecological succession at the Indiana Dunes, sand dunes at the southern end of Lake Michigan. Here Cowles found evidence of ecological succession in the vegetation and the soil with relation to age. Cowles was very much aware of the roots of the concept and of his (primordial) predecessors[7]. Thus, he attibutes the first use of the word to the French naturalist Adolphe Dureau de la Malle, who had described the the vegetation development after forest clear-felling, and the first comprehensive study of successional processes to the Finnish botanist Ragnar Hult (1885).

Modern ecological theory and research

Ecology's influence in the social sciences and humanities

Human ecology

Main article: Human ecology

Human ecology began in the 1920s, through the study of changes in vegetation succession in the city of Chicago. It became a distinct field of study in the 1970s. This marked the first recognition that humans, who had colonized all of the Earth's continents, were a major ecological factor. Humans greatly modify the environment through the development of the habitat (in particular urban planning), by intensive exploitation activities such as logging and fishing, and as side effects of agriculture, mining, and industry. Besides ecology and biology, this discipline involved many other natural and social sciences, such as anthropology and ethnology, economics, demography, architecture and urban planning, medicine and psychology, and many more. The development of human ecology led to the increasing role of ecological science in the design and management of cities.

In recent years human ecology has been a topic that has interested organizational researchers. Hannan and Freeman (Population Ecology of Organizations (1977), American Journal of Sociology) argue that organizations do not only adapt to an environment. Instead it is also the environment that selects or rejects populations of organizations. In any given environment (in equilibrium) there will only be one form of organization (isomorphism). Organizational ecology has been a prominent theory in accounting for diversities of organizations and their changing composition over time.

James Lovelock and the Gaia hypothesis

Main article: Gaia hypothesis

The Gaia theory, proposed by James Lovelock, in his work Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, advanced the view that the Earth should be regarded as a single living macro-organism. In particular, it argued that the ensemble of living organisms has jointly evolved an ability to control the global environment — by influencing major physical parameters as the composition of the atmosphere, the evaporation rate, the chemistry of soils and oceans — so as to maintain conditions favorable to life.

This vision was largely a sign of the times, in particular the growing perception after the Second World War that human activities such as nuclear energy, industrialization, pollution, and overexploitation of natural resources, fueled by exponential population growth, were threatening to create catastrophes on a planetary scale. Thus Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, while controversial among scientists, was embraced by many environmental movements as an inspiring view: their Earth-mother, Gaia, was "becoming sick from humans and their activities".

Conservation and environmental movements

Since the 19th century, environmentalists and other conservationists have used ecology and other sciences (e.g., climatology) to support their advocacy positions. Environmentalist views are often controversial for political or economic reasons. As a result, some scientific work in ecology directly influences policy and political debate; these in turn often direct ecological research.

Ecology and global policy

Ecology became a central part of the World's politics as early as 1971, UNESCO launched a research program called Man and Biosphere, with the objective of increasing knowledge about the mutual relationship between humans and nature. A few years later it defined the concept of Biosphere Reserve.

In 1972, the United Nations held the first international conference on the human environment in Stockholm, prepared by Rene Dubos and other experts. This conference was the origin of the phrase "Think Globally, Act Locally". The next major events in ecology were the development of the concept of biosphere and the appearance of terms "biological diversity" -- or now more commonly biodiversity -- in the 1980s. These terms were developed during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, where the concept of the biosphere was recognized by the major international organizations, and risks associated with reductions in biodiversity were publicly acknowledged.

Then, in 1997, the dangers the biosphere was facing were recognized from an international point of view at the conference leading to the Kyoto Protocol. In particular, this conference highlighted the increasing dangers of the greenhouse effect -- related to the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, leading to global changes in climate. In Kyoto, most of the world's nations recognized the importance of looking at ecology from a global point of view, on a worldwide scale, and to take into account the impact of humans on the Earth's environment.

See also



  1. ^ Coleman, W. (1986) Evolution into ecology? The strategy of Warming’s ecological plant geography. Journal of the History of Biology, 19(2), 181-196.
  2. ^ Stauffer, R.C. (1957) Haeckel, Darwin and Ecology. Quarterly Review of Biology 32: 138-144
  3. ^ Acot, P. (1997) The Lamarckian Cradle of Scientific Ecology. Acta Biotheoretica 45: 185-193
  4. ^ Paterson, Hugh (2005) The Competitive Darwin. Paleobiology 31 (2): 56-76
  5. ^ Worster, D. (1994) Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521468345
  6. ^ Kormondy, E.J. (1978) Ecology/economy of nature – synonyms? Ecology 59(6) 1292-1294
  7. ^ Cowles, Henry C. (1911) The causes of vegetational cycles. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 1 (1): 3-20 [1]
  • Humboldt, A. von. 1805. Essai sur la géographie des plantes, accompagné d’un tableau physique des régions équinoxiales, fondé sur les mésures exécutées, depuis le dixième degré de latitude boréale jusqu’au dixième degré de latitude australe, pendant les années 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, et 1903 par A. De Humboldt et A. Bonpland. Paris: Chez Levrault, Schoelle et Cie. Sherborn Fund Facsimile No.1.
  • _______. 1805. Voyage de Humboldt et Bonpland. Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent. 5e partie. “Essai sur la géographie des plantes”. Paris. Facs intégral de l’édition Paris 1905-1834 par Amsterdam: Theatrum orbis terrarum Ltd., 1973.
  • _______. 1807. Essai sur la géographie des plantes. Facs.ed. London 1959. His essay on “On Isothermal Lines” was published serially in English translation in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal from 1820 to 1822.
  • Ramalay, Francis. 1940. The growth of a science. Univ. Colorado Stud., 26: 3-14.

Further reading

  • Egerton, Frank N. 1977. History of American Ecology. New York: Arno Press.
  • Simberloff, Daniel 1980. A succession of paradigms in ecology: Essentialism to materialism and probabilism. Synthese, 43 (1): 3-39. [2]
  • Egerton, Frank N. 1983. The history of ecology: achievements and opportunities; Part one. Journal of the History of Biology, 16 (2): 259-310.[3]
  • Hagen, Joel B. 1992. An Entangled Bank: The Origins of Ecosystem Ecology. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
  • Kingsland, Sharon E. 1995. Modeling Nature: Episodes in the History of Population Ecology, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • McIntosh, Robert P. 1985. The Background of Ecology: Concept and Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Mitman, Gregg. 1992. The State of Nature: Ecology, Community, and American Social Thought, 1900-1950.
  • Real, Leslie A. and James H. Brown, editors. 1991. Foundations of Ecology: Classic Papers with Commentary. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Tobey, Ronald C. 1981. Saving the Prairies: The Life Cycle of the Founding School of American Plant Ecology, 1895-1955. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Weiner, Doug. 2000. Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation, and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • Worster, Donald. 1994. Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, 2nd ed. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Acot, Pascal. 1998. The European Origins of Scientific Ecology (1800-1901). Editions des Archives Contemporaines; Gordon and Breach Publishers, ISBN 9056991035. google books
  • Wilkinson, David M. 2002. Ecology before ecology: biogeography and ecology in Lyell's 'Principles' . Journal of Biogeography, 29 (9): 1109-1115. [4]
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "History_of_ecology". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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