A Brief History of Ecology (with timeline)

It might be a surprise to you but ecology is a relatively new discipline and while there were a few developments before the 20th century, this science has only really been considered “important” in the last 50 years or so.

So, let’s take a look at how ecology went from zero to hero in the eyes of the world community and the individuals that work in this discipline.

A History Of Ecological Science: From The Start To Modern Ecology

400 Years B.C.

There was no real concept of “ecology” back then but it wouldn’t be a history of ecology without noting that ecological theory owes a lot to the ancient scholars of Rome and Greece.

Aristotle and Theophrastus may never have heard the term “ecology” but they were fascinated by biological diversity and studied plant species and animals and the relationship between living creatures and the environment in which they existed.

18th Century Ecological Ideas

In the 18th century, the idea of human ecology began to become popular and two forms of ecological thought began to vie for attention.

The first, Arcadian Ecology, claimed that man needed a harmonious relationship with nature and that what was best was a “simple, humble life for man”.

The second, Imperial Ecology, was very different and this form of human ecology necessarily focused on the idea of dominating the world around us using our reason and our capacity for hard work.

While you may have a preferred choice between these two schools of thought – they remained pretty much neck and neck for popularity until…

1758: Carl Linnaeus Plant And Animal Ecology

In 1758, Carl Linnaeus, observed plant species and animals and began to classify and name related organisms – this new movement in the ecological succession was, of course, the science of taxonomy.

He published a book called Systema Naturae and he offered quantitative and statistical measures for classifying future discoveries. This was the first real push to promote ecology as a scientific discipline.

19th Century: Where We Establish Ecology As A Real Concept

In the 19th century, our understanding of ecosystem ecology would take off as would our knowledge of natural history thanks to the efforts of European expeditions to discover the world.

1804: Alexander Von Humboldt And Plant Geographies

Alexander worked for much of his life in ecological plant geography and he cataloged thousands of species and tried to explain their distribution using data. He published his Idea For Plant Geography in 1804. Many consider this to be a fundamental date in the history of ecology and that Alexander can be considered the father of the movement.

1859: The Origin of The Species and Charles Darwin

Perhaps, the most important work in the history of evolutionary ecology is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection though its original intention was to be a documentary of population ecology.

In this book, Darwinian evolutionary perspectives were first expressed and the idea of survival of the fittest became one of the defining concepts of how modern science vies changes in ecological communities and individual species.

1869: Ecology Emerged Thanks To Ernst Haeckel

They may have talked about ecological concepts before this date but it was in 1869 that Ernst Haeckel invented the term “ecology”.

1879: Symbiosis Is Discovered

Modern science traces the roots of the idea of symbiosis to 1879. The term describes two different organisms living in harmony.

1895: Biogeography Is Discovered

Eugen Warming came up with the idea of biogeography. Warming’s ecological plant geography looked at how living things are distributed and how this might relate to other factors such as temperature or wind.

The 20th Century To Present Day: An Ecological Onslaught

Up until now, science had relied on the odd early ecology pioneer to carry it forward but our ecological history now sees the development of the formal study of ecology for the purposes of environmental management and the new linked urban ecology.

1926: The Biosphere And Vladimir Vernadsky

It might seem incredible now, but nobody had considered the idea that all individual ecosystems would add up to something bigger, a complete system of its own.

Of course, today, it’s common to think of our physical environment as the “biosphere” but it was Vladimir Vernadsky who first conceptualize this in his book The Biosphere back in 1926.

The ecological community of the time seized on this to help with theoretical ecology to explain the damage done by extracting natural resources and exploiting the planet around us.

1927: Charles Elton And Animal Ecology

It was Charles Elton, the British biologist, who published a classic work – Animal Ecology (and would go on to publish several more) that looked at how animals function within a given environment.

He coined the concepts of ecological niche, food pyramid, food cycle, and more. One of his biggest ideas was to explore the complex relationship between predators and their prey.

1935: Arthur Tansley and The Emergence Of The Ecosystem

And yes, somehow, Vernadsky managed to explain the idea of joined-up ecosystems before ecological society had even coined the concept of “ecosystem” which happened in 1935 when Arthur Tansley defined this as the “biological community of interacting organisms with their physical environment.”

1940: The Patrick Principle And The Interdependence Of Living Things

Ruth Patrick would deliver a discipline-changing idea in 1940 when she published her work which included the idea that would become known as “The Patrick Principle”.

This was elegant simplicity itself. She simply noted that an organism does not exist by itself and, in fact, interacts with many other living things and the new natural resources that they may create as they go about their business.

For example, plants must be pollinated in order to survive, and thus, they need insects. We must digest food, and thus, we need the bacteria, which help with this process, living in our guts. And so on… and so on…

1947: G Evelyn Hutchison And Climate Change

The concept of climate change is not new and the British professor G Evelyne Hutchison, who would spend most of his teaching career at Yale in the US, taught students back in 1947 that carbon emissions would lead to global warming!

His contributions to the science of ecology often have him marked down as the creator or father of the current school of ecology.

1950: Pollution Is First Understood

Experimental ecology soon started to bring us bad news too, it had become clear that human ecology led to pollution, lots and lots of pollution.

And this was no longer a big secret of the scientific ecology community but rather a major concern to everyone sharing the planet too.

The first environmental advocacy groups began to form and the ecosystem concept began to be important far away from the classrooms where ecological statistical methods were being invented and taught.

You didn’t need to know any ecological thermodynamic concepts in order to understand the damage we were doing to the world around us.

1953: The First Ecology Textbook

Eugene Odum, who has a big deal at the time thanks to his international biological program of study, loved this idea and with his brother Howard, they wrote a textbook explaining how this concept could be used in direct ecological research and it was still being used 30 years later!

1960: Ecosystem Science Dominated Headlines

One of the big challenges involved in the field of ecology is that in the 1960s, the world became fully conscious of the impacts of our efforts on the planet and that, in time, they might lead to our destruction.

It is hard for many people to accept that climate change might “end the planet in 12 years” when they were told that their homes and cities would be underwater thanks to melting ice caps by the year 2000.

1970: James Lovelock’s Gaia

We’ve got a whole section on Gaia Theory on this site, it’s one of the most important developments in ecological thinking because it examines the idea that the Earth is a single living creation and that we are not essential to that creation. James Lovelock was the man to found this idea in 1970.

If we were foolish enough to destroy our ability to survive by poisoning the environment, then the Earth will not come to a halt, it will simply evolve in a different manner.

Thus, it behooves us not to pretend that Gaia needs us and to start focusing on the preservation of our ecosystem and the things we share it with. Healing Gaia becomes something of a priority for us all.

1971: UNESCO Launches The Man And Biosphere Program

This was a program designed to encourage people to better understand the relationship between humanity and nature. It’s still running today!

Final Thoughts On Historical Ecology

Of course, the study of ecology did not end in 1971 but the developments in this field of study have been coming on so fast that there’s been no chance to codify the more recent history.

What we can say is that the discipline is now practiced worldwide and considered to be vital to the future of our life on Earth.