History of Biology - Twentieth Century Biological Sciences - Ecology and Environmental Science

Ecology and Environmental Science

See also: History of ecology

In the early 20th century, naturalists were faced with increasing pressure to add rigor and preferably experimentation to their methods, as the newly prominent laboratory-based biological disciplines had done. Ecology had emerged as a combination of biogeography with the biogeochemical cycle concept pioneered by chemists; field biologists developed quantitative methods such as the quadrat and adapted laboratory instruments and cameras for the field to further set their work apart from traditional natural history. Zoologists and botanists did what they could to mitigate the unpredictability of the living world, performing laboratory experiments and studying semi-controlled natural environments such as gardens; new institutions like the Carnegie Station for Experimental Evolution and the Marine Biological Laboratory provided more controlled environments for studying organisms through their entire life cycles.

The ecological succession concept, pioneered in the 1900s and 1910s by Henry Chandler Cowles and Frederic Clements, was important in early plant ecology. Alfred Lotka's predator-prey equations, G. Evelyn Hutchinson's studies of the biogeography and biogeochemical structure of lakes and rivers (limnology) and Charles Elton's studies of animal food chains were pioneers among the succession of quantitative methods that colonized the developing ecological specialties. Ecology became an independent discipline in the 1940s and 1950s after Eugene P. Odum synthesized many of the concepts of ecosystem ecology, placing relationships between groups of organisms (especially material and energy relationships) at the center of the field.

In the 1960s, as evolutionary theorists explored the possibility of multiple units of selection, ecologists turned to evolutionary approaches. In population ecology, debate over group selection was brief but vigorous; by 1970, most biologists agreed that natural selection was rarely effective above the level of individual organisms. The evolution of ecosystems, however, became a lasting research focus. Ecology expanded rapidly with the rise of the environmental movement; the International Biological Program attempted to apply the methods of big science (which had been so successful in the physical sciences) to ecosystem ecology and pressing environmental issues, while smaller-scale independent efforts such as island biogeography and the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest helped redefine the scope of an increasingly diverse discipline.

Read more about this topic:  History Of Biology, Twentieth Century Biological Sciences

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