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Observations on the Status of Ecology Author(s): Richard S. Miller Source: Ecology, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Apr., 1957), pp.

353-354 Published by: Ecological Society of America Stable URL: . Accessed: 28/03/2011 00:26
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The status of ecology with respect to its related fields and the biological sciences generally has been deplored by a number of ecologists for its lack of maturity and definition (Birch 1955; McMillan 1954, 1956; Park 1945). The essential objectives of ecology as a field of study and as a definitive science are rather poorly defined and, due to its broad interests and to the popularity of its concepts in related fields, it is often difficult to separate purely ecological research, directed toward the solution of fundamental problems in ecology, from that which has "ecological aspects." While we may correctly refer to ecology as "the study of the relations between an organism and its environment," this definition is too broad to clarify the scope of ecological research and it does not define the position of ecology with respect to the other biological sciences. Since an organism does not, and cannot, function outside an environmental context of some sort, we might easily infer from the above definition that all biological research is ecology. To some authors this seems to be the case, but unless ecology has certain characteristics which can be described objectively and which distinguish it from its related fields, there is no justification for maintaining that it is anything more than a useful but rather vague point of view. While it is perhaps true in a sense that the essence of ecology does lie in its point of view, as Woodbury (1954) asserts, and that ecology is applicable in this form to a wide variety of biological problems, a statement of this sort merely signifies an awareness of the fact that plants and animals have environmental relations which govern the expression of their various attributes. As such, an ecological point of view may be a valuable research tool or method of interpretation, but it is not a qualified statement of the aims, the methods, or the scope of ecology. We expect for example that every modern biologist accepts the facts of evolution and that he uses an evolutionary interpretation whenever it is appropriate, but we usually reserve the term "evolutionist" for a comparatively small group of scientists who devote their research and thinking to the major problems of evolution, and who have made fundamental contribtuions to evolutionary theory. In other words, the mere acceptance of the fact of ecological relations or the use of an "ecological approach" need not imply research on the fundamental problems of the science of ecology, nor does it justify the label "ecologist," and in order to describe ecology as a definitive science we must, in some way, be able to describe a set of aims and concepts which are unique. Dice (1955) contends that ecology has no natural boundaries and that any attempt to draw boundaries between ecology and its related fields would "do more harm than good." This assumption depends upon whether such boundaries are used to define the areas of research which ecologists are particularly concerned with or whether, instead, they place restrictions on the interpretation of ecological events and concepts. These alternatives are not inseparable and the latter is obviously as undesirable in ecology as it is in any field. But in spite of the above contention, Dice (1955) attempts. to define ecology by its methods, its vocabulary, and the following list of concepts: levels of organization, energy relations, ecosystems, ecologic balance, reproduction, competition, variability, ecologic patterns, individual adaptability, evolution, and social cooperation. While he does not claim that "these or other concepts are exclusively the property of ecology as opposed to other sciences," certain of them, because they are not unique, cannot be regarded as definitive. Certainly concepts of reproduction, individaul adaptability, and evolution are just as appropriate, if not more so, to fields other than ecology. Dice is undoubtedly correct when he implies that concepts cannot be regarded as "exclusively the property" of any particular field, and this is perhaps even more true of experimental methods and techniques; but we may on the other hand indicate those concepts or methods which are especially applicable to research in a particular field, or which are primarily its concern. For example, McMillan (1956) argues that "Techniques such as the quadrat (cited by Dice, 1955, as definitive of ecology) and the bisect, which are used for dealing with spatial arrangements are geographical, not ecological tools." Obviously it is rather pointless to insist that spatial arrangements are the exclusive concern of geographers, since spatial arrangements are considered in virtually every field of science, even though they may involve different subjects or different levels of organization. In other words, it is not so much the quadrat method which is unique in this case, but rather the particular problems to which it is applied. While ecologists use methods and concepts which are often common to its related fields, their interests tend to center on special levels of biological organization; namely, the biological properties of populations and natural communities. This fact is expressed in the following observation by Park (1955): "The distinguishing characteristic of ecology is its ultimate preoccupation, not with the individual organism, but with the environmental relations of groups. Thus the group, or population, emerges as a natural entity." In another paper Park states, "The subject matter of ecology can be considered under four categories, each of which represents a grade of biological organization of increasing functional and structural complexity. These four are: the individual organism, the single species population, the mixed or several species population and the community" (Park 1948). These categories are included in the following diagram of the different units or levels of biological organization: Cells Organs and tissues Individuals Single species populations Mixed species populations Communities Subspecies



In this diagram, subspecies and species, which we may regard as "taxonomic populations," are considered distinct from the "biological population" of the ecologist. While this is to some extent an artificial separation, the



Ecology, Vol. 38, No.2

systematist is usually concerned with statistical measures of variation in geographical units, whereas the ecologist deals with the biological properties, such as age structure, population growth, and population density, of local units which can usually be censused. At each of these levels of complexity there are fields of study devoted to the structural or functional properties associated with that particular grade of organization. A series of examples is offered in the following tabulation of some of the principal subdivisions of biology and the levels of organization with which they are primarily concerned:

ORGANIZATION Cells Organs and tissues Individuals Single-species populations Mixed-species populations Communities Subspecies Species

STRUCTURE Cytology Histology Anatomy Ecology Systematics Ecology Ecology Geography Systematics Systematics Geography

FUNCTION Cytology Physiology Physiology Ecology Genetics Ecology Parasitology Ecology Genetics Genetics

the study of single-species populations, mixed-species populations, or- communities. Furthermore, these concepts, such as food chains, the pyramid of numbers, competition, predator-prey relations, parasite-host relations, population growth, energy relations, and the natural regulation of numbers, each have -structural and functional characteristics which tend to comprise one of the natural divisions of ecological study, and each lends itself to both descriptive and experimental study. Ecology has been rather strongly criticized for its emphasis on descriptive study (McMillan 1954), but surely its ultimate aim is a synthesis that will describe "not only the parts of a complex system but the interaction and balance between them, and the dynamic properties of the system as a whole" (Elton and Miller 1955). Community ecology has been particularly slow to progress from the study of structure to that of function and to enter an experimental phase of research, but the subject matter of community ecology is extremely complex and a vast amount of information from single- and mixed-species population relations is necessary before adequate synthesis at the community level is possible. If, however, our central aims are research on group phenomena such as those listed above, we may expect that the field of ecology will progress from description to -experiment as measurements are substituted for generalized observations (Allen 1955), and that it will retain its specific identity through its concern with population and community relations. It is only within these areas of research that ecology can find a basis for a definitive status in the biological sciences.

One must recognize, of course, that related fields are bound to have overlapping interests and that their research will often be directed toward similar, if not identical, problems; but this does not preclude their being separable on the basis of their primary concerns. It has often been pointed out that "ecology uses methods borrowed from physiology (c.f. McMillan 1954), and some authors have in fact described ecology as "field physiology"; but the ecologist begins with the individual as his smallest unit of study and is primarily interested in the biological properties of populations and communities, whereas the physiologist is concerned more with individuals than with populations, even though he may study the effects of environment in certain situations. Ecology and genetics, on the other hand, are both concerned with the same level of biological organization in many cases, as with population genetics and population ecology; but the genetiticist is only secondarily interested in the unit responses of populations to environmental factors, except in so far as the hereditary mechanism is involved (Odum 1953). The above scheme gives little prominence to the traditional division between autecology and synecology, since it is felt that ecology is invariably concerned with group phenomena and ecological research is seldom, if ever, restricted to an autecological subject. The central theme of ecology is a list of concepts pertaining to group phenomena, most of which may be approached through

Allen, K. R. 1955. Proc. N. Z. Ecol. Birch, L. C. 1955. by G. L. Clarke. Dice, L. R. 1955.

The growth of accuracy in ecology. Soc., 1: 1-7. A review of "Elements of Ecology" Ecology, 36: 369. What is ecology? *Sci. Monthly,

80: 346-351.
Elton, C., and R. S. Miller. 1954. The ecological survey of animal communities: with a practical system for classifying habitats by structural characters. Jour. Ecol., 42: 460-496. McMillan, C. 1954. Parallelisms between plant ecology and plant geography. Ecology, 35: 92-94. . 1956. The status of plant ecology and plant geography. Ecology, 37: 600-602. Odum, E. P. 1953. Fundamentals of ecology. Philadelphia: Saunders. Park, 0. 1945. Observations concerning the future of ecology. Ecology, 26: 1-9. Park, T. 1948. Population ecology. Encyclopedia. Brittanica. 1955. Ecological experimentation with animal populations. Sci. Monthly, 81: 271-275. Woodbury, A. M. 1954. Principles of general ecology. New York: Blakiston.