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1.2: Definitions of ecology

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  • With caveats in mind, consider definitions of ecology. In the 1860s, Ernst Haeckel, combined the term oikos—a place to live, home, habitat—with logia—discourse, study—to coin the word “ecology.” In the 1890s Ellen Richards included humans and harmony, quite a modern view. Variations over the years are shown in Table \(\PageIndex{1}\).

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\) Various views of ecology.

    Haeckel 1860s The total relations of an organism to its organic and inorganic environment
    Richards 1890s Living in harmony with the environment, first including the human species
    Elton 1920s Scientific natural history
    Odum 1960s The study of structure and function of nature, including the human species
    Andrewartha 1960s The scientific study of the distribution and abundance of organisms
    Krebs   The scientific study of the interactions that determine the distributions and abundance of organisms
    Molles 1990s The study of relationships between organisms and the environment
    Eltis 2010s Life in context
    Pope Francis 2015 The relationship between living organisms and the environment in which they develop

    Each of these definitions has merit, but the first two and the last two are closest to the way the term is applied in this book. We humans have become prominent in ecology, locally to globally. No modern treatment of ecology is complete without a strong dose of anthropology.

    The definition by Andrewartha has been widely quoted, but focusing merely on distribution and abundance reduces ecology to mapping, which is why Krebs modified this definition. The Pope’s definition from his 2015 Encyclical includes the interesting idea of development, which can be taken to mean short-term development like embryogenesis and growth, plus long-term development like evolution. Overall, the definition by Eilts is perhaps the most general and engaging.

    First and foremost, the most important concepts in ecology are about relationships, plus all of life, the whole environment, the processes of living and development, and, above all context. And in today’s world, harmony. But also consider, “Poetry is the subject of the poem” (Wallace Stevens, 1937) and perhaps “Ecology is what ecologists do.” With these in mind, we strive in the remainder of this book to define a theoretical form of ecology through examples and demonstrations, representative models and symbols, patterns and explanations, and lessons and caveats.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) The Rhind Papyrus, c. 1640 BC. One of the oldest known documents—and containing exercises from theoretical ecology!