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1 July 2005 Ecology, the Great Integrator
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Fundamentals of Ecology. 5th ed. Eugene P. Odum and Gary W. Barrett. Brooks Cole, Belmont, CA, 2004. 624 pp., illus. $104.95 (ISBN 0534420664 cloth).

The fifth edition of Fundamentals of Ecology records, sadly, the demise of its first author, Eugene P. Odum, who served at the University of Georgia's Institute of Ecology for more than six decades. Gene Odum's long and productive career as an ecologist was replete with honors. It appropriately ends with the reappearance of his paradigmatic textbook (Bergandi 2000).

The first edition in 1953 was notable for being organized around the then new and little-known concept of the ecosystem, a term coined by A. G. Tansley in 1935. The ecosystem concept was initially developed in 1942 by Raymond Lindeman in an article on “trophic-dynamic aspects of ecology” (published with much difficulty), but was brought forcefully to the forefront of ecology in Odum's revolutionary textbook by his emphasis on the structure and function of ecosystems. The current edition maintains the holistic emphasis of the earlier ones and emphasizes the complex problems of hierarchy, emergence, and human components of (and influences on) ecosystems in current ecology.

In the fifth edition, Gary W. Barrett, a long-time ecologist who is the director of the Ecology Institute and holder of the Odum Professorship in Ecology at the University of Georgia, joins Odum in coauthorship. Among numerous distinctions, Barrett served as president of the American Institute of Biological Sciences in 1998.

Writing a textbook on the fundamentals of ecology is a daunting task in an era when ecology has expanded far beyond its traditional scope. Its current breadth, not to say depth, is evident in a quotation from the afterword in a volume on philosophy of ecology coedited by Frank Golley, a University of Georgia colleague of Odum and Barrett: “Thinking ecologically means synthesizing the many fields of human knowledge into a coherent world view. Ultimately, the scientific ecologist includes in his or her purview ethics, values, and politics. As a consequence, there will never be overall consensus on the form and objectives of ecological science” (Keller and Golley 2000).

So sweeping a view of ecology makes writing a text on its fundamentals a fitting task for these two distinguished ecologists. Odum and Barrett note the common etymological derivations of ecology and economics from the Greek word oikos and call attention to the recent rapprochement of these traditionally antithetical disciplines in the interface discipline of ecological economics. Indeed, the inside back cover shows a cycle of “natural capital” (ecological resources) and “economic capital” (human production).

One problem the authors note is that the enormous contribution of natural capital, supplied free to human societies by natural ecosystems, is commonly ignored, in part because of the difficulty of evaluating it in conventional economic terms. Money flows out of urban areas to pay for energy, goods, and human services, but natural ecosystem services are not accounted for.

The authors intend the volume to serve as an introduction to a new ecological discipline, involving interdisciplinary approaches at the higher levels of ecological organization, and leading to transdisciplinary means of solving environmental problems and managing resources. They see ecology evolving “into that much needed integrative science of the future.” E. O. Wilson notes in the foreword that the book is needed to “learn the boundaries and principal features of ecology,” which are increasingly difficult to delineate.

The volume is well organized and clearly written, and addresses the increasing scope and complexity of ecology. It considers seven ecological levels—organism, population, community, ecosystem, landscape, biome, and ecosphere—in terms of seven transcending functions—energetics, evolution, development, regulation, behavior, diversity, and integration. The early editions' emphasis on the ecosystem concept is continued, with 40 percent of the pages being on ecosystems. An innovation is a chapter on statistical thinking for students of ecology, by R. Cary Tuckfield of the Savannah River National Laboratory (which Odum was instrumental in founding). This is followed by an extensive glossary, references, and an index.

The format of the book is uniform throughout. Each subdivision of a chapter, after the first chapter describing the scope of ecology, is introduced by a statement followed by explanations and examples. The statement is a concise comment on the concept or phenomenon considered. The explanation provides three historical references and elaborates the ideas introduced earlier, and the examples offer specific cases and studies thereof. In all chapters, keywords are given in boldface for emphasis. The text is liberally supplied with clear figures and tables from diverse sources. Special attention is given to models, some developed by Howard T. Odum, Gene Odum's brother; the work of son William E. Odum is also cited.

The authors devote considerable attention to concerns about biodiversity and the problems of human effects on the earth and sustainability. They note, in passing, those who would resolve such problems by establishing enormous space colonies (without direct mention of President Bush's plan for Mars). Their conclusion: don't count on it.

Ecologists linked humans and ecology even in the early years of the discipline, but this volume brings human influences and concerns to the forefront of the discussion of Earth's sustainability and poses the problems of postmaturity old age. It is of interest, in the context of modern high-tech agriculture, to note the recent emphasis on traditional practices of indigenous peoples and what may be learned from them about sustainability (Ford and Martinez 2000).

Odum and Barrett consider the elusive problem of ecological theory, which has long frustrated ecologists. They review the grand old climax theory of Frederic Clements and the attendant dispute about its merits, and declare that it remains “one of the most important unifying theories in ecology.” Indeed, it has several descendants in the concepts of self-organization, synergetics, and ascendancy, which in more modern jargon see ecosystems as developing into self-organizing systems, similar to Clements's concept.

Notably, Odum and Barrett do not consider two individuals, Robert May and Jared Diamond, who flashed across the ecological sky in the 1970s and 1980s and then went on to other conquests. May, an Australian physicist, wrote several articles on theoretical ecology and wrote or edited books on model ecosystems and theoretical ecology, then served in England as science advisor to the prime minister and received a knighthood. Diamond, a well-known physiologist, wondered why ecologists had overlooked competition—which, J. B. Jackson pointed out, they had not. His principal contribution to ecological theory was his use of the terms “assembly,” “assembly rule,” and “assemblage,” predicated on the primacy of interspecific competition. These gave rise to extended debate and to the proliferation of an extensive set of some 60 terms based on “assembly” and 47 on “assemblage” in the literature between 1970 and 1999. Diamond moved on to books about human societies, one of which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

The concluding chapter by R. Cary Tuckfield, on statistical thinking, is not a primer on elementary statistics; rather, it considers the intrinsic difficulties of applying conventional statistics in ecology because of problems of scale. Oddly, Tuckfield asserts that “statistical methods may not always apply, but statistical thinking will.” He equates Plato's famous shadows with samples, and calls for a different perspective on data analysis in ecological studies, particularly at larger scales. According to this perspective, the emphasis is on data display rather than statistical computing software, in what he terms the “weight of evidence” paradigm. This is a refreshing departure from the common emphasis on statistical techniques per se as the resolution of ecological problems.

This fifth edition of Fundamentals of Ecology can stand as a memorial to Gene Odum's contributions to ecology and, with Gary Barrett's collaboration, it will serve as an introduction to the long history of traditional ecology and a balanced consideration of the recent emergence of ecology as an integrative science.

References cited

  1. D. Bergandi 2000. “Reductionist holism”: An oxymoron or a philosophical chimera of Eugene Odum's systems ecology? Pages. 204–217. in Keller DR, Golley FB, eds. The Philosophy of Ecology: From Science to Synthesis. Athens: University of Georgia Press. Google Scholar

  2. J. Ford and D. Martinez . 2000. Traditional ecological knowledge, ecosystem science, and environmental management. Ecological Applications 10:1249–1340. Google Scholar

  3. D. R. Keller and F. B. Golley . eds. 2000. The Philosophy of Ecology: From Science to Synthesis. Athens: University of Georgia Press. Google Scholar

  4. R. L. Lindeman 1942. The trophic-dynamic aspects of ecology. Ecology 23:399–418. Google Scholar


Ecology, the Great Integrator

ROBERT P. McINTOSH "Ecology, the Great Integrator," BioScience 55(7), (1 July 2005).[0622:ETGI]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 July 2005

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