review - REVIEWS REVIEWS REVIEWS Conveying the intellectual...

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E cologists have long endeavored to improve ecologi- cal literacy. This goal goes beyond informing stu- dents about environmental issues: one must excite their interest in ecological science, regardless of whether or not they intend to pursue the more advanced technical and mathematical education that modern ecology requires (Golley 1998). The challenge is to motivate people to tackle difficult ecological problems. Fifty years ago, G Evelyn Hutchinson (1953) observed that, while students did not hesitate to dive into complicated activities concerned with “electronic amplifiers and with the explosive combustion of hydrocarbons”, they traditionally viewed the majority of complex activities as boring duties. “What we have to do”, Hutchinson wrote, “is to show by example that a very large number of diversified, complicated, and often extremely diffi- cult constructive activities are capable of giving enor- mous pleasure”. The kind of pleasure that Hutchinson was thinking of involved the formulation of theory, discovery, and problem-solving. Repairing the bios- phere and the human societies within it, he believed, ought to be as much fun as repairing the family car. While people today are better informed about environ- mental problems , engaging students in ecological research and conveying what ecology is about to the public is still challenging because of the complexity of the science. I will draw on historical examples to illustrate ways of thinking that are characteristic of an ecological approach to the study of nature. My list is by no means complete. I touch only lightly on the classics of the eco- logical canon, which are discussed elsewhere (Real and Brown 1991; Keller and Golley 2000). Instead, I include some lesser known examples from medical science to highlight different contexts in which thinking ecologi- cally has been important. Students should appreciate that this kind of thinking integrates methods derived from many fields of science and has a particular perspec- tive that has evolved over decades of careful observation and thought. They may not realize, for instance, that ecology has roots in Newtonian science, or that some ecologists esteem Louis Pasteur because of his ability to think ecologically. This article offers a sampling of differ- ent forms of problem solving, starting with the prehistory of ecology in the 19th century, to illustrate a few of the key components of that perspective and some of the important generalizations that have resulted from think- ing ecologically. The components highlighted here are: (1) the drive for a general theory or unifying worldview, culminating in the concept of the ecosystem; (2) the dis- covery of the role of history in explaining species diver- sity and distribution; (3) the discovery of the complexity of species relationships; (4) the application of logico- mathematical arguments as heuristic devices (rules of thumb or guidelines that do not guarantee optimal solu- tions); and (5) the recognition that how organisms
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This note was uploaded on 01/06/2010 for the course EVE 101 taught by Professor Strong,d during the Spring '08 term at UC Davis.

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review - REVIEWS REVIEWS REVIEWS Conveying the intellectual...

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