The word ecology was first used in print in 1869 by Ernst Haeckel. He defined it as the scientific study of the interactions between organisms and their environment. Etymologically, the word is derived from the Greek oikos, which means 'home'.

Ecology was largely a descriptive science from the late 19th century until the middle of the 20th (with the notable exceptions of Vito Volterra, Alfred J. Lotka and Frederick E. Clements), when a couple of luminaries brought mathematical rigour to the field. From the late 1950s to present, ecologists have striven to transform the field from one of pure description to a hard science. However, the field got side-tracked for a couple of decades with a purely reductionist philosophy, where ecologists thought they could fully understand all the functionings of an ecosystem given sufficient time and study. History has proved this approach to be fundamentally flawed, given that nature is severly non-linear, scale-dependent and generally nasty to describe.

Foremost among the critics of descriptivist ecology was Rob Peters, a leading Canadian ecologist, wrote a book in 1991 called A critique for ecology, in which he proposes that the principal problem with the science of ecology in the modern day is the obsession with problems of solely theoretical interest. He believed* that ecologists should ignore the purely theoretical and strive to find the predictive; that is, ignore the fact that at times we may not understand all of the interactions and processes that govern an ecosystem and instead content ourselves with the knowledge that we have find relationships that help us to manage environmental problems.

In sum, he thought that finding the 'Grand Unifying Theory' for ecology was not only a waste of time but also detrimental given that we have overwhelming problems in the modern world and limited time and talent with which we can attack these problems.


*Unfortunately, Rob Peters died in the late 1990s of stomach cancer in middle age.

Ecology - The science of the relationships between living things and their environment. Most ecology implies an internally connected system of relationships, extreme forms accept full holism, many adopting a cranky form of nature mysticism in which nature strives for harmony and balance.

Biblos writes that
extreme forms accept full holism, many adopting a cranky form of nature mysticism in which nature strives for harmony and balence.

I know what you're talking about, and some people who support this idea are kind of crazy, but it remains perfectly true that nature strives for balance.
Imbalance exists when some of the factors determining what will happen to a system are more powerful than others. When a force is stronger than the counterforce, that means something is going to happen. The system will change. After the change, two things can happen:
1) the system will be in balance
2) the system will be in imbalance
If the system is in balance, nothing will change. Obviously this might be on a fairly high level: you could have plants taking solar energy, growing and putting oxygen in the air, which is consumed by animals that consume the plants and produce carbon dioxide, which the plants consume -- if their populations are constant and the system is sustainable, this can fairly be called "no change."
If the system is in imbalance, it will change some more. A system that is imbalanced will keep changing, whereas one that is balanced will stay as it is until something outside changes it (e.g., the sun stops producing solar energy). Since there are relatively few unpredictable extra-systemic influences on the earth-wide ecosystem, balanced systems remain balanced.

Where this differs from the crunchy version of that statement is in its lack of comforting friendliness. If you have a type of animal that consumes resources faster than they can be replenished and fouls its environment, the state of balance it reaches may be one of extinction. If you have one that commits wholesale destruction of biomass, well... a charred wasteland of a planet is pretty stable.
I think that while we may strive for a more practical view of ecology that can be tailored to resolve the problems of our present, the original idea of trying to find a Grand Unified Theory is correct. After all, in today's society things are more and more fragmented, and this filters through to almost everything we see and understand from an intellectual point of view.

An example of this is the modularisation of subjects, and the separation out of particular fields of interest. While this may be useful in the first instance, to get a better view of complex systems, it is worth noting that this may actually hinder progress in the long because a leap of understanding from context to context needs to be made in order to piece things back together. The GUT of ecology and the whole environmentalist movement's incredible success in the last few decades has stemmed from the fact that it makes us more aware of the whole system, and points out that the distinctions we make between different parts of nature are often purely arbitrary, and often counter productive.

I believe the same attitude would be fruitful in many areas, like psychology, politics, and other fields of science.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.