Man has always had the need to understand the environment that surrounds him; especially in the entire period before the Industrial Revolution, when the majority of the population lived in rural areas, understanding the interactions of organisms among themselves and with their environment could make a great difference in people’s lives. We all know superstitions and sayings that try to explain the climate, life cycles and a long etcetera.
Historical background of ecology: its precursors
We begin by talking about the historical background of ecology and the most relevant precursors. The history of ecology begins with the first civilizations and the first philosophers. The philosophers Hippocrates and Aristotle laid the foundations for modern biology , with Hippocrates more focused on medical issues and Aristotle on natural history .
Aristotle dealt with describing and classifying a huge number of living organisms, including both animals and plants, as well as trying to explain other phenomena such as fertilization, the development of embryos, the soul (or what gives life to beings living) or the origin of life. The corpus of knowledge issued by Aristotle was not only tremendously broad, but it also laid the foundations for the systematic study of living beings and nature.
The concept of “ecology” derives etymologically from the Greek oikos (house) and logos (science, study). It is surprising that the term refers to the “study of our house” , understanding that nature is our home and we are part of it. It was coined by the scholar Ernst Haeckel in 1869, who understood ecology as the study of the relationship of living beings with the environment that surrounds them. Currently the term has been expanded. Thus, the definition of ecology encompasses not only the relationships that living beings establish with their environment, but also the relationships they forge between them.
Origin of ecology: the first scientific studies
Here we present the origin of ecology through the contributions that some important authors made to the body of ecological knowledge, not so much from the point of view of philosophy, but through a more systematic study:
- Buffon (1756): considers the populations of human beings and other living beings, such as animals or plants, as subject to the same phenomena.
- Alexander von Humboldt (1800-1804): he was a very versatile scholar, who in addition to studying the natural world occupied his efforts in geology and geography. During these years he traveled a large part of Latin America, collecting a large amount of information about its flora, fauna, geology, etc.
- Malthus (1803): Although Malthus did not initially attempt to explain the natural world, his theories had a profound impact on the understanding of populations. Malthus proposed that the resources of a given space grow arithmetically, while the population of any living being has the potential to grow exponentially. Thus, there is necessarily an imbalance between resources and populations. This concept also helped to form Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by natural selection.
- Forbes (1844): described the distribution of animals in European coastal waters, noting that certain patterns in their distribution were due to the characteristics of the environment.
- Darwin (1859): the theory of evolution by natural selection had a profound impact on understanding the dynamics of populations, which came to be understood as changing entities and not as static agents.
Ecology currently deals with multiple topics related to the natural world, and its studies are published in leading scientific journals, including Nature and Science . Next, we describe some of the most common types of ecology , according to the subject they deal with:
- Microbial ecology: focused on the relationships between microscopic organisms.
- Urban ecology and rural ecology: focused on studying the relationships established in these two types of populations.
- Botanical ecology: focused on the study of the relationships of plants and fungi with each other and with their environment.
- Paleoecology: seeks to explain the ecosystems of times before ours, which is a very difficult task. If you are interested in the subject, we recommend you read “The Wonderful Life”, by Stephen Jay Gould.
Ecology deals with many other important topics and is related to many other sciences: from population genetics to the study of material and energy fluxes, as well as, to mention another example, from the classification of ecosystems to the study of ecosystems. services that they can provide us. Ecology is a multidisciplinary science that covers many subjects related to nature.