Guest Blog: Simon Levin on holistic ecology

Princeton University Press has a new ecology book out, edited by Simon Levin, titled The Princeton Guide to Ecology. The book includes chapter contributions from more than 120 ecologists, and although its contents span the regular suspects — autecology (apparently this term is enjoying a revival) and population, community, ecosystem and landscape ecology — about a third of the book is devoted to applied ecology. In particular, 13 chapters deal entirely with ecosystem services, a sign that ecologists are realizing the importance of their field in the context of human markets. They’ve begun working with economists — and learning the ropes of economics themselves.

We’re delighted to have the below guest blog by Levin himself.

by Simon Levin, Editor, The Princeton Guide to Ecology

Ecology has experienced remarkable maturation as a discipline over the past century, growing in importance as society becomes more aware of Earth’s environmental problems, and advancing as a science through its own development as well as its cross-fertilization with other disciplines, from mathematics and the physical sciences to molecular biology to the social sciences and humanities.  That growth necessarily has carried with it an expansion in breadth, bringing increasing challenges to the maintenance of ecology as a coherent subject, and to the easy exchange of ideas and knowledge across the spectrum from evolutionary biologists to biogeochemists to environmental economists.  At the same time, the need to maintain and develop those exchanges has never been greater, as the nature of ecosystems and societies as complex adaptive systems has received increased currency, as natural systems and civilizations have become more interlinked, and as the value of an evolutionary perspective on ecosystem dynamics have grown more apparent.

Against this background, Princeton University Press has produced in one volume, The Princeton Guide to Ecology, an integrated view of the subject, and one that can serve multiple audiences.  Princeton’s Monographs in Population Biology (MPB) has been one of the most important forces for integrating theory and empirical work in ecology for more than 40 years, since MacArthur and Wilson’s landmark Theory of Island Biogeography appeared in 1967. Ecology, as well as the MPB series, has a very different face today than it did in 1967, and the obvious value of this Guide made the task of recruiting distinguished authors an easy one.  The resultant authoritative nature of the articles will therefore provide specialists with a needed invaluable reference work, documenting how the subject has developed in the last century, and laying out challenges for the next century.   On the other hand, the expository style the authors have achieved will also make the articles accessible to a diverse lay audience.  The coverage is both broad and deep, making the book suitable as a core text for college and university courses on ecology and sustainability, and also as a reference book for advanced high school courses.

The Princeton Guide to Ecology develops the principles of ecology from a functional perspective, beginning with physiology and behavior to provide an integrated view of population biology, communities and ecosystems, landscapes and the biosphere.  These principles then form the foundation for the later sections, which apply these basic principles to problems of management, for example in fisheries and conservation biology, and in the challenges faced in embedding ecosystem management within a socio-economic context. In these sections, key themes are the development of the scientific foundations for linking ecological and economic perspectives, implications for our stewardship of natural ecological systems and the goods and services they provide us, and elucidation of fundamental principles for the conservation of natural resources.  The diverse multiple disciplinary backgrounds of the authors reflects the multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary challenges we face in addressing the challenges of ecological research, as well as the degree to which scholars and practitioners from other disciplines have been drawn to ecology in recent years.  This phenomenon will certainly increase in the years to come, and the next edition of the Guide likely will reflect that.

As a whole, the volume vividly illustrates the value of combining a holistic perspective with a reductionistic, mechanistic one, in which the interactions among processes at diverse scales, and the interaction between systems and their environments, give rise to emergent patterns that are manifest on those multiple scales. The interplay between holistic and individualistic approaches will become increasingly important not only as we develop understanding of ecological systems, but also as we wrestle with the challenges of the Global Commons, and the interplay between the decisions individuals make about consumption and utilization of Earth’s resources and the degradation of those resources.

Author: Christine Buckley

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  1. The Milestones in Ecology section is awesome! Sad that it ends in 1992. I wonder if the lists ends in the year 1992 because this was a sample. There have been major contributions since then so I hope the list is longer in the hard copy. Thanks for the post!

  2. Ohh my bad. I just read the first paragraph and it explains why the list is cutoff in 1992…

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