Teaching and Research: Bibliographic Essays

Life Sciences in the Twentieth Century

by Garland E. Allen

Ecology & Animal Behavior

The science of ecology–the study of the interrelationships among the biological and physical components in the natural world–has emerged as a distinct discipline only in the twentieth century. While naturalists from ancient times to the late nineteenth century noted the interdependence among organisms and the adaptations of organisms to their environment, the attempt to study those interactions as part of a larger natural system has occurred-only recently.

An excellent general introduction to the problems and recent sources in the history of ecology is Frank Egerton’s two-part bibliographical essay “Thr History of Ecology: Achievements and Opportunities,” Journal of the History of Biology, 1983, 16:259-310, and 1985, 18:103-143. Another interesting general work is Donald Worster’s Nature’s Economy, the Roots of Ecology (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1979). Worster’s book is essential background reading and will provoke thought about, if not agreement with, the dialectic he sees between the views of earlier, romantic naturalists and those of hard-nosed quantitative ecologists in the period since the early 1900s.

As a field, ecology seems to have followed much the same historical development as other fields of biology, passing from a descriptive phase in the nineteenth century to a quantitative, experimental, and analytical phase in the twentieth. The contradiction within ecology during this period was that between holistic and reductionistic, analytical and integrative, thinking. An interesting survey that comes to much the same conclusion is Eugene P. Odum’s “The Emergence of Ecology as a New Integrative Discipline,” Science, 1977, 195:1289-1292.

As some scholars have pointed out, the development of ecology has been closely tied to evolving concepts of nature. Two very interesting papers, both dealing with the changing concept of nature, highlight this general view. One is Roderick Nash’s “The Exporting and Importing of Nature: Nature-Appreciation as a Commodity, 1850-1980,” Perspectives in American History, 1979, 12:519-560, in which the author argues that by the beginning of the twentieth century North America had little frontier or wilderness left. This, Nash claims, led to changing patterns of travel to “experience wild nature” in other areas such as Africa. Nash sees “nature appreciation” as a commodity for tourism, explaining the rapid growth of conservation movements in this country between 1890 and the present as an attempt to save the wilderness for the tourist industry. On a somewhat different theme, Donald Fleming, in “Roots of the New Conservation Movement,” Perspectives in American History, 1972, 67:7-91, compares the old conservation movement of the Progressive Era (the period discussed by Nash) to the “new” environmental and ecological movement emerging in the late 1960s. Fleming argues that the new environmentalists represented a resurgence of a basic American transcendentalism and an opposition to the Judeo-Christian tradition of conquering nature. Both articles treat the general concern for environment, and by association its “scientific” side (ecology), in terms of American social and intellectual history. More directly concerned with the history of the scientific side is Sharon Kingsland’s Modeling Nature: Episodes in the History of Population Ecology (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1985), which deals with a series of important topics in twentieth-century ecology and evolution: mimicry, cryptic coloration, the concept of the niche and the community, island biogeography, and population structure.

Ethology as a field has received scant attention from historians, though several scholars have works in progress that should change this situation in the not-too-distant future. There is one general historical introduction, W. H. Thorpe’s The Origins and Rise of Ethnology (New York: Praeger 1979), but it is a summary by an eminent elder statesman in the field, not a critical history. Of special value is John R. Durant’s “Innate Character in Animals and Man: A Perspective on the Origins of Ethology,” in Biology, Medicine and Society, 1840-1940, edited by Charles Webster (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 157-192. A similarly brief but useful overview is Richard W. Burkhardt’s “The Development of an Evolutionary Ethology,” in Evolution from Molecules to Man, edited by D. W. Bendall (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983), pp. 429-444.

Of the many biologists who have worked to establish the field of ethology in the twentieth century, only two have received biographical or historical treatment: William Morton Wheeler (1865-1937) and Konrad Lorenz (1903-). Wheeler’s pioneering work with ant social organization and behavior was instrumental in establishing ethology as a significant and serious branch of modern biology. His biography by Mary Alice Evans and Howard Ensign Evans, William Morton Wheeler, Biologist (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1970), is a rich source of information about, the history not only of ethology but of many other aspects of twentieth-century biology. The more recent Konrad Lorenz, by Alec Nisbet (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), portrays not only Lorenz himself but many of his contemporaries and explores the controversies that molded ethology between 1935 and 1965. Nisbet is perhaps too enamored of his central character and does much to apologize for Lorenz’s overt Nazi connections, but the biography covers a period of ethology not treated in detail by other writers. More scholarly and philosophical analyses of Lorenz’s work have come from several historians of science: see, for example, Theodora J. Kalikow’s “Konrad Lorenz’s Ethological Theory: Explanation and Ideology,” Journal of the History of Biology, 1983, 16:39-73. Kalikow’s work is thorough, fair, and insightful, facing squarely the ideological basis of Lorenz’s work that may have brought him into step with Nazi racial theory. In addition, there is Robert J. Richards’s superb study of Lorenz’s instinct theory: “The Innate and the Learned: The Evolution of Konrad Lorenz’s Theory of Instinct,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 1974, 4:111-133.