Translator Disclaimer
1 March 2006 HOW ECOLOGY CAME TO BE
Author Affiliations +

The Evolution of American Ecology, 1890–2000. Sharon E. Kingsland. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2005. 328 pp., illus. $50.00 (ISBN 0081881714 cloth).

Sharon Kingsland, a professor of the history of science at Johns Hopkins, traces the development of North American ecology from its roots in natural history and systematics to its new focus on the role of humans on our crowded planet. She shows how the opportunity to watch the opening of a new continent influenced American ecologists, who focused their attention in the early 1900s on concepts like succession and disturbance, while their European counterparts, who never had the opportunity to see their continent in pristine condition, preferred to explore far-off lands.

Plant biology dominates Kingsland's treatment of the history of ecology. She begins the tale at the New York Botanical Garden, where the politics of priority in naming new plants energized early field systematists, who were keen to compete against the old schools in Europe and Asa Gray's dominance at Harvard. She dedicates nearly an entire chapter to Nathaniel Lord Britton, director of the Botanical Garden from 1896 to 1929 and long-time competitor of Asa Gray.

Of course, ecology has had a long association with systematics, and it depends upon good taxonomy to tell us what things are. Despite Britton's urge to collect more specimens and name more species than his contemporaries, his most important role may have been in helping to establish the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill in Tucson, where Daniel MacDougal, Forest Shreve, Frederic Clements, and others were so effective in honing their thoughts on ecology in the early 1900s. They established long-term research plots, which are still monitored today, against the background noise of Tucson's suburban sprawl.

Kingsland devotes much attention to the changing views of the role of humans in nature. Throughout the book, she establishes Man and Nature, written by George Perkins Marsh and published in 1864, as a benchmark against which to measure the views of all who have followed. For instance, she argues that Frederic Clements sought an understanding of nature so as to empower humans to control it. The early systems ecologists, working with brothers Gene and Tom Odum, built the concept of the ecosystem, focusing on energy flow and nutrient cycling so as to include humans and human-dominated systems, complete with their flows of money and information. Ecosystem science now permeates much of how we view ecology and how we study it. Unlike Marsh and Clements, most ecologists are now certain that Homo sapiens is not above and apart from nature. We must devise new ways for a sustainable existence with a functional biosphere if we are to survive happily on Earth.

Clements also struggled to find an organizing principle for ecology, so that it could progress by experimental approaches and avoid sinking into a set of disconnected studies of natural history. In short, ecology had to outgrow its descriptive phase and embrace experiments with strong inference, which allowed rapid progress in physics and biochemistry at the end of World War II. Beginning in the 1950s, experimental field studies proliferated, among them seminal work by Katherine Keever to elucidate plant succession in North Carolina, and by Robert Paine to do the same in the intertidal zone along the coast of Washington.

By beginning her coverage in 1890, Kingsland misses the influence of early explorers and naturalists—Lewis and Clark, Thoreau, and Audubon—on the development of ecological thought in the United States. Indeed, I was struck by the absence of much discussion of animal ecology and animal systematics throughout the book. Surely the influence of ornithologists such as Joseph Grinnell (1877–1939) and S. Charles Kendeigh (1904–1986) rivaled that of their botanical counterparts in the early 1900s. The Princeton School, led by Robert MacArthur, gets only a half page of coverage, despite its overwhelming influence on population and community ecology during the 1960s and 1970s. How many pages of our journals have been devoted to explanations of the patterns of species diversity and what controls it, by first- and second-generation students of MacArthur? Similarly, there is no reference to Aldo Leopold, whose early book Game Management (1933) and later writings in The Sand County Almanac (1949) have influenced so many ecologists now seeking to find a proper role for humans in nature.

I would also be curious to read what Kingsland thought of why ecologists abandoned worries about human population growth. Early population ecologists Edward Deevey (1914–1988) and Lamont Cole (1916–1978) clearly outlined the consequences of exponential population growth in a closed environment. Paul Ehrlich popularized this thinking in his seminal book The Population Bomb (Ballantine, 1968), only to see the problems of human population growth disenfranchised as part of the environmental movement during the 1980s.

Despite these omissions, Kingsland does a masterful job weaving together the history of ecology in the United States, providing a detailed look at how ecologists have grappled with the basic question of the role of humans in nature. Kingsland, who lives within the urban LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) site in Baltimore, ends her book with the hope that studies of urban ecosystems will give us a new and better view of human ecology. Kingsland believes we can find the proper role of humans in the biosphere by understanding the connection between the products of ecosystems that are delivered to our door each day and the proper preservation and management of nature beyond the city boundary.

and WILLIAM H. SCHLESINGER "HOW ECOLOGY CAME TO BE," BioScience 56(3), (1 March 2006). https://doi.org/10.1641/0006-3568(2006)056[0269:HECTB]2.0.CO;2
JOURNAL ARTICLE
2 PAGES


SHARE
ARTICLE IMPACT
Back to Top