10/03/2013 02:36 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2013

Purpose in the Natural World

Ecology emerged out of Greek thought. But like the rest of Greek science, ecological ideas from Aristotle and other Greek natural philosophers went through the fires of Christianity with the result ecology lost its authentic meaning of being the science of the "oikos" (home) of plants and animals.

Ecology is about the relationships between species but it is also a measure of the deleterious effects of humans on the natural world. Ecology is also another name for nature as well as names for esoteric biological sciences.

Frank Egerton's 2012 Roots of Ecology is a lucid and important book about the natural history and science that, in the nineteenth century, received the name of ecology.

Egerton found the beginnings of ecology with the Greeks. He wrote:

"[The ancient Greeks] invented natural philosophy during the 500s BC and theoretical and practical science during the 300 BC. Greek zoology and botany included substantial natural history information about animals and plants in relation to their surroundings. That information was highly prized by later civilizations."

Aristotle invented zoology and his student Theophrastos invented botany. Reading Aristotle and Theophrastos is coming in contact with the best ideas of ecology, if by ecology we mean a science of relationships between species in a natural world still undomesticated and sacred.

According to Egerton: "Romans learned neither how to do science nor how to evaluate it."

The millennium that followed the Christianization of the Roman world things with science did not get much better. Medieval Christians took several centuries to come to the rudimentary Roman understanding of science.

During that long Dark Age Western Europe was a prisoner of Christian theology that abolished the sacredness of nature and Greek scientific thought. Even when Western medieval scholars adopted Aristotle, they first made Aristotle a Christian. Their Christian Aristotelianism had little to do with Aristotle.

The grip of Christianity became less severe when Greek texts started trickling to Western Europe from Greece and Muslim Spain. This started in the ninth century when the caliph of Baghdad adopted Greek thought for the making of Islamic culture.

Greek texts, translated into Latin, slowly triggered a resurgence of science in Western Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

This Renaissance coincided with the printing press of Johannes Gutenberg. Texts now became books and those books spread widely all over the world. To the dissemination of Greek scientific books, Western herbalists imitated the first century Greek pharmacologist and natural philosopher Dioskourides and made drugs from plants.

The natural history books of the herbalists occasionally had insights of ecological significance. The writings of the herbalists also put pressure on professors of medicine. They started writing on the natural world.

In England, the Royal Society of London funded Robert Hooke, 1635-1703, to perform experiments in order to demonstrate the validity of science. And just like the works of the herbalists, the writings of Hooke were sprinkled with ecological clues. Indeed, his Micrographia (an illustrated book on tiny organisms and microscopy) intrigued the Dutch Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, 1632-1723, who started making lenses and microscopes, becoming so good in his investigations of minute living things he became the best of the founders of microbiology.

The city of London was publishing "bills of mortality" since 1517. These warnings on plagues helped the rich to escape to the countryside. An enterprising merchant, John Graunt, 1620-1674, took the information of the bills of mortality and merged it with data from baptismal and other church records, thus originating statistics and demography.

The development of the microscopes in the 1600s helped those asking questions on spontaneous generation.

John Ray, 1623-1715, a cleric and a botanist, reported that the Christian god could not tolerate spontaneous generation. After all, since god gave sexual organs to animals, he expected them to use their sexual organs. He connected tree rings to the age of the tree. He also noticed plants follow the course of the sun. Ray's natural theology found god's wisdom in animals and plants.

The shining lights of natural philosophy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries included Carl Linnaeus, 1707-1778; Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, 1707-1788; Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, 1744-1829; Georges Cuvier, 1769-1832; Alexander von Humbolt, 1769-1859; Charles Darwin, 1809-1882 and Ernst Haeckel, 1834-1919.

Linnaeus put the cornerstone in the edifice of ecology, which he wisely named "economy of nature." He said god wanted plants all over the Earth.

The Sorbonne theologians attacked Buffon for ignoring Biblical genesis.

Humboldt traveled in Spanish America. He said the importance of science was "knowledge of the chain of connection, by which all natural forces are linked together and made mutually dependent."

Cuvier discussed the extinction of species in natural catastrophes and Lamarck proposed an evolutionary theory.

Darwin learned from his predecessors, including Thomas Malthus, 1766-1864, who wrote on the survival of the fittest. Darwin adopted the Malthusian struggle for existence in the origins of species. But Darwin was a keen observer of nature. He tied the numerous ecological insights of his age to the evolution of species.

Haeckel, the most ardent disciple of Darwin, put all the ecological clues together in a science he envisioned and named ecology in 1866. He said:

"[Ecology is] the whole science of the relations of the organism to the environment including, in the broad sense, all the conditions of existence."

We are grateful to Egerton for this vital story of how ecology came into being - at least, down to 1866. Ecology has the seeds for saving our civilization - and the Earth.