A question about the history of ecology
July 13, 2012, 7:01 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’ve been reading a bit of ecological history for a column, and I was struck by some dichotomies. Here’s Ron Doel, in 2003

By the 1960s, two distinct ‘environmental sciences’ had emerged: one biology-centered, focused on the problems in ecology and population studies, and funded in part on the problems in ecology and population studies, and funded in part by agencies and managers concerned about human threats to the environment; the other geophysics-centered, focused on the physical environment, and responsive to the operational needs of the military services that support it.

I can see that, and I can see how it would map in part on to a distinction between critical and industrialised science of the sort that Ravetz discusses.

But here’s a different dichotomy, in a different context, as ascribed to G. Evelyn Hutchinson by Joel Hagen in “An Entangled Bank”

Population biologists tended to take a merological perspective, focusing upon independent individuals and assuming that population phenomena determined higher level community properties. In contrast to this bottom up approach, other ecologists, particularly those who later studied ecosystems, took a holological approach by studying the flow of materials and energy through food webs without considering the individuals that made up the web. Hutchinson, an eclectic biologist, seemed capable of making the transition from one perspective to the other effortlessly. Most other ecologists have not been so adept.

And this, it seems to me, also bears on the Clements/Tansley dispute, as to whether there was a sort of teleological holism in ecology (the notion of the climax ecosystem), or simply sets of relations between populations and their physical environments which could be studied rather as those in physics could be.

Now it’s pretty clear to me that these aren’t all the same cut and dried dichotomy. You can be a military-linked energy-flow kind of guy and believe in climax systems (I think the Odums did this). But elements of it do seem to be consistent. I wonder if anyone can guide me to deeper thought on this?


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If it’s not too late, I think Sharon Kingsland’s book Modeling Nature: Episodes in the History of Population Ecology is good. She’s also written The Evolution of American Ecology, 1890-2000, which I’ve not read.

I’m not well up on the history of ecology, but I think the divide is partly also geographical – the ecosystems/energy flow side of things is mostly US-based, whereas pop and com, while well represented in the US, is more of a British tradition.

As Hagen remarks, Hutchinson is one of the few who worked in both (he moved from ecosystems to community ecology during his career). There’s a genealogy of his influence in the paper at http://www.aslo.org/lo/toc/vol_16/issue_2/0157.pdf

My impression is also that ecology allows often contradictory ideas to exist alongside one another – concepts tend not to get booted out.

Comment by John Whitfield

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