SFI External Professor Simon Levin reviews the integrative, interdisciplinary history of the science of ecology and calls for its further integration with the social sciences, the humanities, and public policy in our quest to preserve the planet's ability to support humankind.
His essay in the August 8, 2010, Chronicle of Higher Education recounts ecology's creation from Darwin's marriage of geology, natural history, and biology and reviews its own scientific progenies: fields such as ecotoxicology, conservation biology, and systems biology.
He also cites examples of ecology's contributions to furthuring the sciences of epidemiology, demography, population biology, population genetics, evolutionary theory, ecosystems science, and others.
"The scientific discipline of ecology has thus been, in some sense, a key node in an ecology of scientific disciplines," he writes. "From its roots in natural history, it has built partnerships with botany and zoology; with geology and paleontology; with mathematics; and with evolutionary studies, from molecular biology to population genetics and development. It has not ignored physics and engineering along the way, in its need to understand the mechanics of how animals and plants grow and move, or how they capture energy and resist stress—why, for example, trees are shaped the way they are. Ecologists make their living by recognizing the interconnectedness of different parts, and different disciplines."
He then calls for new links to the social and policy sciences, and to the humanities, including economics.
"What we must do now, however, is to unify science and the social sciences and humanities further in the service of preserving the earth...Our political leaders have already begun to recognize that in dealing with the world's interconnected financial systems; it applies with at least equal force to our environment. Solutions to the great environmental challenges we face will require deep partnerships between ecologists, economists, and other social scientists."
Protecting the goods and services ecosystems provide, creating institutions and policies that deter cheaters, understanding the interconnectedness of economics and the environment, managing intergenerational and intragenerational equity and resource distribution all will be important challenges for ecology's future, he says.
"Ecology views biological systems as wholes, not as independent parts, while seeking to elucidate how the wholes emerge from and affect the parts. Increasingly, such a holistic perspective, rechristened at places like the Santa Fe Institute as 'the theory of complex adaptive systems,' has informed understanding and improved management of economic and financial systems, social systems, complex materials, and even physiology and medicine. Essentially, that means little more than taking an ecological approach to such systems."
Levin is the Moffett Professor of Biology at Princeton University and editor of The Princeton Guide to Ecology (Princeton University Press, 2009).