As you know, ecology is a relatively young science that emerged as a separate discipline at the turn of 19th and 20th centuries. Actually, it was considered science only in the sixties of the 20th century when the state of environment had caused great concern. But the background of ecology began much earlier: not everybody knows that perhaps the first environmentalist on Earth was... Aristotle!
Aristotle’s “History of animals” is a first textbook on ecology
The treatise of Aristotle called "History of animals" was the first attempt to systematize the animal world according to their structure, habitat, method of reproduction, etc. Today some of the names that a philosopher used seem to be childishly naive. For instance, Aristotle divided the animals into the “bloody” ones (a dog, a horse) and those that are bloodless (insects were included here). However, one should not underestimate the value of this work, which consists of 10 books, for the formation of the modern science of ecology. For centuries, starting with the Middle Ages and ending with the 18th century, “History of animals” had been used as the most important source of systematic information about animals and nature.
Antique authors and an ecological topic
Aristotle was not the only one who cared about ecology among his contemporaries. Particularly, Hippocrates (460-356 BC), who is named a father of medicine, is an author of many works dedicated to healing art and human anatomy as well as to the topics that are directly connected to ecology.
Speaking of works dedicated to learning nature back in those days, we may not skip Heraclitus who is considered a founder of dialectics. Unfortunately, of all the literary works of Heraclitus only “On Nature” was preserved, even though still in a small number of tiny quote-fragments.
A collection of epic works “Mahabharata” that became one of the largest literary pieces of Ancient India includes information on habits and features of more than 50 animals whose description is as important as theological, juridical and political texts.
Theophrastus (371 - 280 BC), who was a student of Aristotle, carried on the work of his teacher on exploring the world of nature and devoted much time to the study of the varieties and forms of plants and their dependence on conditions of existence. The books called “The history of plants” and “The reasons of plants” were a result of years of hard work and made the philosopher a pioneer of botany in the eyes of the world.
Ecology in the Middle Ages
Interest in ecology in the Middle Ages was markedly diminished in comparison with the Ancient world. The society was focused on theology and simply could not pay that much attention to nature and its laws as well. All the interest in nature was limited to studying the healing properties of herbs, and everything that was happening was considered the Providence of God and accepted as something inevitable.
However, there had been interest in the character of nature in foreign and unknown countries. In the 13th century journeys of fearless Marco Polo and his book that had been written under the impression of visiting unprecedented those days distant lands ― "The Book about the diversity of the World" ― played a significant role in the development of ecology.
Substantial changes in terms of ecological concern only occurred in the 13th century.
Albert the Great (Albert von Bolshtedt)
Albert of Cologne, who was elevated to the rank of saints in 1931, was in the highest degree a remarkable personality. Born in the late 12th century, the philosopher became a student of the University of Padua approximately in the year of 1212 and showed extraordinary ability to natural sciences that were not popular among the youth back in time.
He carefully studied the works of Aristotle and wrote a number of books where the primary attention was paid to the main provisions of botany and the laws of plant life. Namely Albert was the first to emphasize the connection between breeding of plants and the nutrition and the presence of "solar heat"; he drew particular attention to the causes of their winter "sleep".
Vincent de Beauvais (1190-1264)
The Dominican monk, who lived in France in the 13th century, contributed to the development of ecology as a science by creating a giant encyclopedia "The Great Mirror", one part of which was devoted to natural sciences - astronomy, alchemy, biology – and was called “The Natural Mirror”.
As an example of works that concentrated on the study of nature in the Medieval period, it is also possible to recall “The Testament of Vladimir Monomakh" widely spread in the 11th century and the work of the Dominican monk John of Siena "About the teachings and the similarities of things" written in the early 14th century. Nevertheless, one has to note that the attitude to nature in those days was exclusively consumptive, and the main goal of the research was to find ways to enrich and maximize the use of natural resources along with making the minimal effort.
As it turned out, the ancient Aztecs were much closer to ecological discoveries than the inhabitants of Medieval towns: they managed to create artificial islands located on small lakes and rivers. Those islands were called Chinampa and resembled regeneration agricultural systems that did not need watering and did not cause a threat to the environment
Environmental science in the epoch of Renaissance
During this period there had been a fracture in all spheres of human life ― from the growth of economic relations to the rapid and versatile development of science.
Prerequisites of such metamorphoses were the political processes taking place in society of the 14th — early 17th centuries: the formation of bourgeois society forced its members to rethink the nature and the person himself as its integral part.
It was time to systemize knowledge that had been spontaneously accumulated over the centuries and to divide it into independent branches, not mixing together the discoveries of physics, geography, chemistry and botany. Features of biology as a science began to clearly emerge in the public consciousness.
Of course, the science of those ages was far from ecology in the modern sense of the word but it is impossible not to agree that in comparison with the Middle Ages, it was a real breakthrough.
The names included in the ecological history of the Renaissance
If the development of ecology as a science in the Middle Ages was associated with the accumulation of knowledge, it is evident that the main feature of the Renaissance period was the systematization and analysis of available data.
The first taxonomists were:
• Andrea Cesalpino (1519-1603), who opened the period of the artificial system in botany and systemized plants according to the structure of their seeds, flowers and fruits, basing on the works of Aristotle;
• John Ray (1623-1705), who created the scientific natural history society in England, author of "Catalogue de la flore de Cambridge" and other scientific works on botany;
• Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656— 1708) ― member of the Paris Academy of Sciences, who created the original classification of plants based on the structure of the corolla of a flower.
Many other people, whose work was united by a common idea (that the status and abundance of plants directly depends on the growth conditions, soil quality, weather conditions and other factors), can be included to the list.
First ecological experiments
The first experiment in the history of mankind that was ecologically oriented became a kind of a harbinger of the emergence of ecology as a science. Robert Boyle (1627— 1691) ― a famous English chemist - proved the effect of atmospheric pressure on animals through an experiment.
It is curious that experiments connected to plants started to be held much earlier than those with animals.
Ecology and traveling
A considerable contribution to the development of ecology had been made by travelers of 17th - 18th centuries that paid attention to the way of life of animals in different countries, migration and interspecific relationships, drawing parallels and making logical conclusions about dependence of these facts on the environmental conditions.
Among them are Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, a naturalist from the Netherlands; the French biologist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, whose works became the basis of the doctrine of C.Darwin and J. B. Lamarck.
Science and gossip
The way of formation of ecology can not be called smooth and orderly ― nonsense that was common in the medieval world continued to be proclaimed as scientific axioms.
For example, the idea of spontaneous origin of life on Earth that dominated in the society was utterly defeated by the Italian biologist Francesco Redi in the late 17th century but continued to exist up until the 19th century
In the epoch of Middle ages and the Renaissance there was a theory that if you put a lot of stuff in a barrel, pour grain in there and close it tightly, mice would pop up there very soon.
Pundits believed that birds and insects could emerge from the branches of trees, and growing a homunculus (a humanoid) in a flask was considered quite a feasible task, albeit illegal. It was presumed that creating a mouse required human sweat, so a dirty shirt was claimed the best material for such purposes.
The development of ecology in Russia
Russian naturalists of the 18th century, just like geographers, paid serious attention to the rapport between flora and fauna and climate. The most well-known names of scientists who devoted their works to this issue are I.I.Lepyokhin and S.P.Krasheninnikov, M.V.Lomonosov, and S. Pallas.
Simon Pallas (1767 - 1810)
The real masterpiece was the work called “Zoography” of Peter Simon Pallas, a German scientist who was in the Russian service. The book contains a detailed description of the 151 species of mammals and 425 species of birds, including their ecology and economic value that they represent for the country. In this book Pallas pays special attention to the migrations and develops the idea that the settlement of animals on the territory of Russia has the goal of increasing their populations. Thanks to this work that Pallas is deservedly considered the pioneer of zoogeography.
Mikhail Lomonosov (1711 — 1765)
The famous Russian scientist attached great importance to the influence of the environment on living organisms and attempted to find out the specifics of the existence of ancient mollusks and insects, studying their remains. His work "The word about the layers of the earth" was one of the first treatises devoted to geology.
The birth of modern ecology?
If previously ecology as a science was in its infancy manifesting in related forms of botanical geography, zoogeography, etc., the 19th century can be rightfully considered the century of the emergence of the science of ecology as a biological discipline.
The theory of natural selection, an idea which belongs to multiple scholars (C. Darwin and A. Wallace, E. Blythe, V. Wells, P. Matthew), as well as the works of the Danish botanist and the first ecologist Johannes Eugenius Warming, have become the basis of a new science. At the end of the century (1896) the first book on the subject of ecology was released, and an ecological term was used in the name "Ecological geography of plants". The author of the book J.E.Warming created the concept of ecology and first read the ecology course at the University, for which he gained a well deserved name of the founder of this science, which existed first as a section of biology.
Ecology has only emerged as an independent science in the first half of the 20th century when humanity came close to the question of the need to protect nature and the environment. Only by mid-century the experience painstakingly accumulated over centuries by humanity was gathered together as tiny fragments of a complex mosaic to give life to science whose goal is a preservation of life of the entire planet.