The word ‘ecology’ was coined 150 years ago by Ernst Haeckel in his book Generelle Morphologie der Organismen published in 1866. Mike Begon gave a fascinating talk at the British Ecological Society meeting in Liverpool on what ecology as meant over these past 150 years and what it should mean in the future. The description of ecology that follows, is largely taken from Begon’s remarks.
|Ernst Haeckel, 1860|
Haeckel defined ecology as ‘the science of the relations of organism to its surrounding outside world (environment)’, which is in obvious contrast to the then burgeoning science of physiology, which was concerned with the world inside of an organism. Interestingly, the first 50 years of this new field of ecology was dominated by the study of plants. In America, Clements, while in the UK, Tansley, both saw ecology as the description of patterns of plant in relation to the outside world. In many ways, this conception of ecology was what Haeckel had envisioned.
However, by the 1960s, the domain of ecology began to grow rapidly. Ecologists like Odum used ‘ecology’ to mean the structure and function of ecosystems, while others focussed on the abundance and distribution of species. By this time ecology had grown to encapsulate all aspects of organismal patterns and functions in nature.
The post-60s period saw another expansion -namely the value of ecology. While Begon points out that text books, including his, focussed on the science of ecology in its pure form, many were ignoring the fact that ecology had/has important repercussions for how humanity will need to deal with the massive environmental impacts we’ve had on Earth’s natural systems. That is, the science of ecology can provide the foundation by which applied management solutions can be built. I personally believe that applied ecology has only just begun its ascension to being the most important element of ecological science (but I’m biassed -being the Executive Editor of the Journal of Applied Ecology). Just like how human physiology has become problem oriented, often focussed on human disease, ecology will too become more problem oriented and focus on our sick patients.
Begon went on to say what ecology should be in the near future. He juxtaposed the fact and truth based necessity of science to the post-truth Brexit/Trump era we now find ourselves in. If ecologists and scientists are to engage the public, and alter self-destructive behaviours, it cannot be with logic and evidence alone. He argued that we need to message like those post-truthers. Use metaphors, simple messages that are repeated, repeated, and repeated.