History of ecology: Frank Edwin Egler

When it comes to mainstream ecology, I rarely encounter something that’s entirely new to me. There’s plenty that I don’t know a whole lot about, but usually when I come across something that I’ve never heard of, it’s merely a new name for a concept I’m already familiar with (macroecology and metacommunity ecology being two terms that I still remember encountering for the first time). Even when a concept is new to me, it’s generally built from pieces with which I’m already familiar.

The same cannot be said about the history of ecology. It seems like everywhere I turn I come across a new and important figure that I’ve never heard of before. Today on Wikipedia, for example, I encountered Frank Edwin Egler. A student of William S. Cooper, he went on to play a role in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. And his property in Connecticut now forms a protected area, Aton Forest.

There’s also this bit in the article that intrigues me. Like too much in Wikipedia, it’s written by someone who failed to include much back-story or context:

A consequence was that a passage in Silent Spring having some of Egler’s sarcasm received the most criticism from Ian Baldwin in his famously negative review in Science ([13]). Egler rose to defend Carson’s (and his) views in a series of publications that led to his censure by the Entomological Society of America—and censure of a journal that published his views. That incident helped both to focus and to polarize the issues of professionalism and environmentalism in the science of ecology ([14][15]).

Like much of the article, this passage refers back to the Aton Forest website, which contains a long biography of Egler. But without reading it, much of the article is obscure. (Ian Baldwin’s famously negative review? I’m familiar with neither Baldwin – the source calls him “an agricultural scientist at the University of Wisconsin” – nor his review. And Wikipedia contains neither a biography of Baldwin nor mention of his review in its Silent Spring article.)

Course design

Why are courses designed the way they are?

The average biology class starts with cells and molecules, go on to tissues and organs, moving finally onto organisms and ecology. Small to large, the way it’s always been…except, of course, that molecular biology is a product of the second half of the twentieth century. Still, it makes sense to start with the basic building blocks and work upward into more complex structures, right? Or is it just climbing the tree of life, from simple to complex? So maybe it’s an older idea? It probably wouldn’t be a difficult question to answer, but not tonight.

And what about educational theory? What about learning theory? How does that fit in? Is this constructivist? Are students going to construct their ideas of complexity from simple structures? My experience teaching undergrads doesn’t exactly make me hopeful in this regard. Students don’t learn to scale from cells to landscapes – very few people ever learn to see the world that way. Instead, they tend to compartmentalise knowledge.

When I was an undergrad in botany we went the other way – we started with diversity, worked our way up the plant kingdom, before moving on to anatomy and physiology, and then finally to ecology. If I had to guess, that was probably the way introductory botany had been taught for much of the twentieth century. Still, it had the benefit of working from something more or less familiar – the organism – and moving to less familiar things. Unfortunately, since we worked our way up the plant kingdom, starting, I suspect, in the weird and wonderful world of algal life cycles, it probably wasn’t really a matter of working from “knowns”.

This gets me to my current thought: how do I design my course for next semester? In Creating Significant Learning Experiences, Dee Fink lays out a system for course design (that I need to revisit), working backward from your learning goals to your classroom activities. While very useful, this doesn’t tell me the best way to present things so that students build connections between the material – and it doesn’t tell me how to do that in the specific context of introductory biology or environmental science.

So where to you start? Students know a little bit about the world, about biomes. So should that be the starting place? In the principle of moving from knowns to unknowns, do you start big and move small? Or do you start small and move big? And does any of this even matter in an environmental science class wherein you have to teach your students about the natural world, teach them ecology, population growth, minerals and mining, pollution and waste management, energy, climate change, ethics, environmental justice, sustainability science…The volume of material you need to master in a class like that, the amount of basic knowledge you need in order to have an educated conversation – is vast. So how do you present it?

Natural Selection as a Community Process

Continuing a few pages in Shipley’s book brings another new idea…that natural selection can function as a process driving community assembly. Um, yeah…that’s actually pretty obvious if you think about it (as most good ideas are, once someone points then out to you). Starting with a given assemblage of species (rather than genotypes) the environment will select the ‘fittest’ individuals…those that are favoured by the specific environmental conditions will leave the most offspring – or, will occupy  the largest proportion of the site. Seems pretty obvious once you think about it.

Playing with loaded dice

I happened to come across Bill Shipley’s From Plant Traits to Vegetation Structure. In it he uses a fascinating analogy for plant community assembly: “a never-ending game of crooked dice”. The craps tables are the different physical environments in which plants can grow, and each one has different characteristics (foam, steel, maple syrup stains) which interact different with the millions of dice (each face representing a species) that are thrown across their surface.

I’m really interested to see how he develops this model, but my initial reaction is very positive. While it may not possess the simplicity and tractability of Hubbell’s neutral model, it identifies from the very start what’s missing from so much in community ecology: a role for species as something more than interchangeable placeholders.