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Defining Ecology: Ecological Theories, Mathematical Models and Applied Biology in the 1960s and 1970s

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article


<mark>Journal publication date</mark>06/1991
<mark>Journal</mark>Journal of the History of Biology
Issue number2
Pages (from-to)223-243
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Ever since the early decades of this century, there have emerged a number of competing schools of ecology that have attempted to weave the concepts underlying natural resource management and natural-historical traditions into a formal theoretical framework. It was widely believed that the discovery of the fundamental mechanisms underlying ecological phenomena would allow ecologists to articulate mathematically rigorous statements whose validity was not predicated on contingent factors. The formulation of such statements would elevate ecology to the standing of a rigorous scientific discipline on a par with physics. However, there was no agreement as to the fundamental units of ecology. Systems ecologists sought to identify the fundamental organization that tied the physical and biological components of ecosystems into an irreducible unit: the ecosystem was their fundamental unit. Population ecologists sought, instead, to identify the biological mechanisms regulating the abundance and distribution of plant and animal species: to these ecologists, the individual organism was the fundamental unit of ecology, and the physical environment was nothing more than a stage upon which the play of individuals in perennial competition took place. As Joel Hagen has pointed out, the two schools were thus dividied by fundamentally different and irreconcilable assumptions about the nature of ecosystems.
Notwithstanding these divisive efforts to elevate the image of ecology, the discipline remained in the shadows of American academia until the mid-1960s, when systems ecologists succeeded in projecting ecology onto the national scene. They did so by seeking closer involvement with practical problems: they argued before Congress that their approach to the theoretical problems of ecology was uniquely suited to the solution of the impending environmental crisis. With the establishment of the International Biological Program, they succeeded in attracting unprecedented levels of funding for systems ecology research. Theoretical population ecologists, on the other hand, found themselves consigned to the outer regions of this new institutional landscape. The systems ecologists' successful capture of the limelight and the purse brought the divisions between them and population ecologists into sharper relief — hence the hardening of the division of ecology observed by Hagen.45
I have argued that the population biologist Richard Levins, prompted by these institutional developments, sought to challenge the social position of systems ecology, and to assert the intellectual priority of theoretical population ecology. He attempted to do so by articulating a nontrivial and rather carefully thought out classification of ecological models that led to the disqualification of systems analysis as a legitimate approach to the study of ecological phenomena. I have suggested that — ultimately —Levins's case against systems analysis in ecology rested on the view that an aspiration to realism and prediction was incompatible with an interest in theoretical issues, a concern that he equated with the search for generality. He sought to reinforce this argument by exploiting the fact that systems ecologists had staked their future on the provision of technical solutions to the problems of the environmental crisis: he associated systems ecologists' aspiration to realism and precision with a concern for practical issues, trading on the widely accepted view that practical imperatives are incompatible with the aims of scientific inquiry.46 These are plausible, but nonetheless questionable, claims which have now become an integral part of ecological knowledge. And finally, I hope to have shown how even the most abstract levels of scientific argument are shaped by political considerations, and how discussions of the conceptual development of modern ecology might benefit from a greater consideration of its historical and social dimensions.47