Teaching resources: history and philosophy of ecology


I’ve just written a few lectures for a first year ecology unit on history and philosophy of ecology. I remembered my own undergrad education, dominated by the male European history of science, and didn’t want to repeat that history. Ecology is so much more that!

Modern science is founded on western philosophy, so it’s understandable that European science gets most of the attention. But despite what most of us learned at school, scientists aren’t all male and there were many non-European scientists that contributed to the development of modern scientific knowledge.

Most importantly, Indigenous people’s knowledge is tied to place, and we often ignore the wealth of knowledge about ecological interactions and processes that Indigenous cultures hold, as well as the respectful environmental interaction (management) that is embedded in country and culture.

This is a list of some good resources that I found useful to highlight an inclusive history of the development of ecological science, at an introductory level. There are more nuanced details, but these resources simply highlight the important fact that science has developed from diverse minds, not just a select few white guys. Some of those famous guys deserve the credit, others don’t so much.

I’m not a historian of science and this is based on my own reading; I aim to keep the list updated as I find new resources. Please add more suggestions in the comments, and if you have a more accurate hyperlink for something, please let me know.

Indigenous knowledge

Women in the history of ecology (of course there were more than this; records are limited)

  • Hildegarde of Bingen, one of the first women to write about natural history in this era, key figure in developing natural history in Germany. She is also thought to be the first woman to describe the female orgasm, even though she was probably a virgin.
  • Maria Sybilla Merian, one of the first women to travel overseas as a naturalist (self-funded!) at a time when mostly men were travelling abroad. She was more interested in documenting interactions than collecting and was key to developing the science of entomology, especially knowledge of metamorphosis in insects.
  • Rachel Carson. Goes without saying, but I’m surprised how many courses don’t teach how critical Carson’s work was for establishing the massive impact that humans have on ecosystems.

Non-European scientists during period of scientific revolution (ditto comment above about women)

  • Ibn al-Haytham, one of the first scientists to establish hypothesis testing and experimental approaches as an important part of the scientific method
  • Islamic scientists documented some of the first theories and observations of the natural world that are established knowledge today, including evolutionary theory, botany and zoology

Role of slavery in natural history

Extinction and Taxonomy

© Manu Saunders 2020

4 thoughts on “Teaching resources: history and philosophy of ecology

  1. James Braund July 9, 2020 / 8:20 PM

    As further examples of early women in science, how about eighteenth-century English naturalist Anna Blackburne? Early nineteenth-century English paleontologist Mary Anning? German naturalist Amalie Dietrich, who collected extensively in Australia?

    Liked by 1 person

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