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.
- Australian Indigenous weather knowledge identifies seasons based on ecological processes and interactions
- Meet the scientists embracing traditional Indigenous knowledge, via The Narwhal
- Ward-Fear et al. 2019 Conservation Letters: Great study illustrating the important contribution of Indigenous knowledge to ecological research (associated The Conversation article)
- Braiding Sweetgrass, great book by ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer exploring the ecological knowledge of American First Nations’ people and its intersection with modern science
- Mātauranga Māori, on the value of Māori knowledge for biodiversity and conservation in Aotearoa
- The Sumerian Disputations: Debate Between Bird and Fish, early written record of ecological interactions
- Ancient Chinese philosophy links nature observation to wisdom and wellbeing
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
- The slave trade supported travel of many early naturalists, thereby enabling their contribution to the early documentation of natural history that informed modern science
- In destination places, slaves were often used by European naturalists to do the field work that enabled the naturalist to document the knowledge they became famous for back home
- Role of slave trade in facilitating invasive species
Extinction and Taxonomy
- First documented record of extinction: Silphium, a wild plant growing in North Africa that was over-exploited to extinction because of its medicinal value (including as a contraceptive), and for livestock feed to improve meat quality. Still no consensus on its taxonomic identity…how do we know if it is even extinct?
- Manusmriti, the Laws of Manu, classified organisms into four major types based on the way they were born (mostly accurate for today’s norms, except for insects)
- Aristotle: another early attempt at systematic biology. One of the first to separate animals into invertebrates and vertebrates
- Ulyssis Aldrovandi: first natural science professor in the world, and wrote the first known book of insects. He produced possibly the earliest attempt at a dichotomous key to identify species.
- Gaspard Bauhin: Linnaeus built on Bauhin’s attempts to refine contemporary species names, which were usually very long-winded. Bauhin’s work Pinax theatri botanici named thousands of plants.
© Manu Saunders 2020