The Princeton Guide to Ecology

By Simon A. Levin | Go to book overview

Milestones in Ecology

Compiled by Christopher Morris

This timeline presents a view of the successive advancement of the field of ecology, first through earlier developments that provided a foundation for the field and then through developments within the formal discipline of ecology itself, from the late 1800s onward. The timeline concludes with a cutoff date in the late twentieth century, based on the principle that contemporary developments need a certain interval of time before their significance can be properly evaluated.

500,000 BC. Proposed date for the earliest use of fire in a controlled manner, the first major alteration of the natural environment by human activity. By about 3000 BC, many forest regions of the Middle East will be stripped of trees for the fuel demands of the Bronze Age.

8000 BC. Estimated time for the beginnings of agriculture, crop irrigation, and village formation in various areas of the world, especially in parts of the so-called Fertile Crescent such as Mesopotamia and the Nile Valley. Evidence also indicates that plants such as gourds were being cultivated at about the same time in the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico.

ca. 2000 BC. The Indus Valley civilization, one of the three great sites of early civilization along with Mesopotamia and Egypt, declines and eventually collapses. Cited as a leading cause of this is the large-scale removal of forests, which is thought to have shifted the habitat preferences of the mosquito Anopholes stephansi, a dangerous malaria vector, from forest to urban areas.

900s BC (?). The Bible states in Genesis 1:26: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” This passage has been interpreted in contrasting ways in the modern era, on the one hand as the Christian basis for the concept of environmental stewardship, and conversely, as a God-given right to exploit the natural world for human benefit.

500s BC. Ancient Chinese writers describe feeding patterns in animal communities with aphorisms such as “The large fish eat the small fish”; “Large birds cannot eat small grain”; and “Each hill can shelter only a single tiger.” In the twentieth century, animal ecologist Charles Elton will cite these sayings to show ancient awareness of the principle of food pyramids.

400s BC. The Greek philosopher Empedocles postulates that animals had originally been formed at random from individual parts, with those in which the parts formed a natural body shape surviving and reproducing over time, whereas those with mismatching parts died out. This concept of survival of certain body types and extinction of others roughly anticipates the nineteenth-century theory of natural selection.

400s BC. Herodotus, known as the father of history, reports on the wildlife he observes in areas of the Mediterranean. He identifies an example of mutualism, involving the Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) and a bird (the Egyptian plover, Pluvianus aegyptius) that removes and eats parasitic leeches in the crocodile’s mouth. Herodotus also describes a balance-of-nature concept by noting that prey animals such as the rabbit have greater reproductive capacity than the predators that feed on them.

ca. 380 BC. A striking example of resource depletion is described by Plato, who decries loss of forest cover, and subsequent erosion, in the mountains of his native region of Attica. He portrays the area as “A mere relic of the original country…. What remains is like the skeleton of a body wasted by disease. All the rich soil has melted away, leaving a country of skin and bone.”

300s BC. Aristotle establishes a classification system for animals, placing those with red blood in a different category from those without blood. This in effect corresponds to the contemporary distinction between vertebrates and invertebrates. He further divides the blooded animals into five groups similar to the modern system of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish.

300s BC. Chinese philosophers of the Taoist (Daoist) tradition develop a concept of living as one with nature, based on the idea that humanity is only a single component of the wholeness of the natural world, rather than the master of it. Restraint is urged in the use of resources to maintain the harmony and balance of nature. Taoism has thus been described as a model for the modern environmental philosophy of deep ecology.

ca. 300 BC. Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus produces an exhaustive study of plants, describing them according to such criteria as method of reproduction, size, habitat, method of cultivation, practical uses, and appearance, smell, and taste. This is considered the first significant step in the systematic classification of plant life.

ca. 220 BC. The Qin Dynasty of ancient China enacts the world’s earliest known environmental protection laws. According to documents recently discovered, bans or restrictions were placed on the cutting of trees, the burning of grass or picking of germinating plants, the killing of baby animals and birds, and the use of poison, traps, or nets to catch fish and game.


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