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Linné on line arrow Linnaeus and Ecology arrow Linnaeus and the ideas of ecology arrow Natural history, biology, and ecology

Natural history, biology, and ecology

In the early 19th century the term biology had been proposed by Lamarc and Geoffroy St. Hilaire to signify the overarching study of living organisms. Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus made use of the term in his Biologie, oder Philospohie der lebenden Natur (1802–1822). In contrast to natural history, which largely focused on systematics and species description, Treviranus attempted to find general laws of nature and the fundamental principles of living things, as opposed to non-living nature. Later in the century and well into the 1900s, biology also came to take on a more specific meaning: the biology of an animal roughly meant its conditions of living, what today is called ecology.

Ernst Haeckel was dissatisfied with this use of the word biology and suggested instead the term ecology to denote this aspect of natural science. This is used for the first time in his Generelle Morpholigie der Organismen from 1866. A few years later he defined ecology as follows:

“By ecology we understand the study of the economy, the husbandry, of animal organisms.” This means that ecology should examine all the conditions of animals, both their inorganic and organic surroundings, above all the friendly and hostile relations with animals and plants that they directly or indirectly come into contact with; or in other words all the complex mutual relations, all the conditions that Darwin included in the expression ‘struggle for existence.’

Haeckel’s definition interestingly equates three key concepts. As he sees it, ecology denotes the same thing as ‘the economy of nature’ or ‘husbandry,’ which in turn is precisely what Darwin meant by the ‘struggle for existence.’ Here we discern a link between the thinking of Linnaeus and that of Darwin, which raises the question of how protoecology influenced Darwin. This is the subject of the next section: Linnaeus’ ecology and Darwin’s evolution.