Ernst Haeckel and the Origins of Ecology

Ecology derives from the Greek word oikos, meaning "household," and is the study of the relationships among organisms and their surroundings. The science was named by German biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), who introduced the term in several works in the 1860s and 1870s, first in German and then in English, inspiring others to develop the science. In his Generelle Morphologie (General Morphology, 1866), Haeckel included a section entitled "Oecologie und Chorologie," in which he defined ecology as the study of the organic and inorganic conditions on which life depends. "By ecology, we mean the whole science of the relations of the organism to the environment including, in the broad sense, all the 'conditions of existence.' These are partly organic, partly inorganic in nature; both, as we have shown, are of the greatest significance for the form of organisms, for they force them to become adapted."1

Haeckel further designated the inorganic conditions as the physical and chemical properties of the habitat, including climate, nutrients, and the nature of water and soil. The organic conditions included "the entire relations of the organism to all other organisms with which it comes into contact, and of which most contribute either to its advantage or its harm." He noted that each organism had friends and enemies that favored or harmed its exis tence, but that science had so far mainly investigated the organism's functions for preserving itself through nutrition and reproduction. Instead, a more comprehensive approach was needed. Haeckel employed the influential idea of nature as a household, stating that biologists had neglected "the relations of the organism to the environment, the place each organism takes in the household of nature, in the economy of all nature____" Darwin's theories of descent and natural selection, he argued, filled these gaps by showing "all the complicated relations in which each organism occurs in relation to the environment."2 In this, his first use of the term, Haeckel placed the new concept squarely within the framework of evolution introduced just a few years earlier by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859).

Haeckel presciently connected two words, both deriving from oikos — "ecology," or the study of the household, and, "economy," or the management of the household. Haeckel's idea of ecology as the study of the household, or home, would inspire those who later developed the field of human ecology, chemist Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911) and ecologist Eugene Odum (1913- ). His idea of ecology as investigating the economy of nature would inspire those who later developed an economic approach to ecology, such as Charles Elton (1900-91), Arthur Tansley (1871-1955), and Raymond Lindeman (1915-42).

In 1869, Haeckel elaborated on his definition of ecology in his inaugural lecture to the philosophical faculty of the University of Jena, Germany. Here he drew specifically on Darwin's theory of the struggle for existence and again included the idea of nature's economy in his definition. "By ecology we mean the body of knowledge concerning the economy of nature — the investigation of the total relations of the animal both to its inorganic and to its organic environment; ... in a word, ecology is the study of all those complex interrelations referred to by Darwin as the conditions of the struggle for existence."3 This definition is significant, because in English translation it was included in the introductory epigraph (dated 1870) of the Chicago school of ecology's classic 1949 treatise, Principles of Animal Ecology, thereby validating Haeckel's preeminence as founder of the science. The authors were zoologists Warder C. Allee, Alfred E. Emerson, Orlando Park, Thomas Park, and Karl P. Schmidt.

The term "ecology" found its way into English in the translation of Haeckel's two-volume work, The History of Creation (1873), a popular rendition of his 1866 General Morphology. In the preface "oecology" is listed in a series of sciences that explicate Darwin's theory of natural selection, but in volume two, he elaborated on it further as one of several "facts" proving Darwin's Theory of Descent: "The oecology of organisms, the knowledge of the sum of the relations of organisms to the surrounding outer world, to organic and inorganic conditions of existence; the so-called 'economy of nature,' the correlations between all organisms living together in one and the same locality, their adaptation to their surroundings, their modification in the struggle for existence " Here Haeckel argued in opposition to the "unscientific" explanation based on "the wise arrangements of a creator acting for a definite purpose," that phenomena could be explained as "the necessary results of mechanical causes."4 The creationist versus evolutionary explanation of the origins of the natural world generated ongoing conflict in later years, sparking a debate over human origins that continues to the present.

In the English translation of The Evolution of Man (1879), drawn from a set of lectures he gave at the University of Jena, Haeckel provided a more detailed discussion of ecology. Here again, he drew on the root of the term oikos as a household and argued that Darwin's "Theory of Descent" would explain "all the remarkable phenomena which, in the 'Household of Nature,' we observe in the economy of the organisms." He elaborated further on the role of adaptation in the new science of ecology, stating, "all the various relations of animals and plants, to one another and to the outer world, with which the Oekology of organisms has to do ... admit of simple and natural explanation only by the Doctrine of Adaptation and Heredity." Finally, he reiterated his own historically significant assessment that the older theory of creation by a benevolent deity was far weaker in explanatory power than was Darwin's new scientifically derived theory of evolution. "While it was formerly usual to marvel at the beneficent plans of an omniscient and benevolent Creator, exhibited especially in these phenomena, we now find in them excellent support for the Theory of Descent; without which they are, in fact, incomprehensible."5 In these books and articles, Haeckel defined and elaborated the concept of ecology, but did not explicate the science itself. A handful of followers, who read Haeckel's work in its original German and later in English, began to use ecology as an explanation for the role played by the environment in maintaining biotic, including human, life and the ways humans could use the science to manage the economy of nature.

The first approach to ecology that developed in the United States was that of human ecology, put forward by chemist Ellen Swallow Richards in the 1890s. The second was the organismic approach developed by Frederic Clements (1874-1945) in 1916 and elaborated by scientists who worked on the Great Plains in the 1930s and 1940s. The third was the economic approach, emerging out of the nineteenth-century science of thermodynamics as elaborated by British ecologists Charles Elton and Arthur Tansley and many American ecologists during the 1940s through the 1960s. The fourth, or chaotic, approach rose out of work in population ecology as influenced by chaos theory in mathematics during the 1970s to 1990s, and was explicated by scientists such as Robert M. May, S.T.A. Pickett, and P.S. White. There are major differences in the assumptions that each of these approaches makes about nature itself, its management, and the human ethical relationship to it. In Swallow's human ecology, people are part of nature and work within it. In the organismic approach, humans are separate from nature and should follow nature as a teacher. In the economic approach, humans are managers of nature and assume control over it, while the chaotic approach implies that humans need to relinquish the hubris implicit in attempts to control the natural world, accept the disorderly order of nature, and work within nature's limits.

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  • Shanon
    Are responsible for developing “the chicago school of ecology.”?
    7 years ago

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