Homage to G. Evelyn Hutchinson
Version of Record online: 9 NOV 2011
©2011 Society for Conservation Biology
Volume 25, Issue 6, pages 1253–1254, December 2011
How to Cite
Gonzalez, A. and Beisner, B. (2011), Homage to G. Evelyn Hutchinson. Conservation Biology, 25: 1253–1254. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2011.01736.x
- Issue online: 9 NOV 2011
- Version of Record online: 9 NOV 2011
G. Evelyn Hutchinson and the Invention of Modern Ecology. Slack, N. G. 2010 . Yale University Press , New Haven , CT 480 pp. $40 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-300-16174-8. . The Art of Ecology: Writings of G. Evelyn Hutchinson. Skelly, D. K., D. M. Post, and M. D. Smith , editors . 2010 . Yale University Press , New Haven , CT . 368 pp. $22 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-300-15449-8 .
Long before we have reached even an elementary knowledge of the distinction of the kinds of ecological phenomena, they may have disappeared, owing to the continual erosion of nature that is characteristic of our era.
In his 1959 essay “Homage to Santa Rosalia,” G. Evelyn Hutchinson famously asked, “Why is there such an enormous number of animal species?” At the time, he felt dissatisfied that no theory could yet predict the number of animal species on Earth to within an order of magnitude. Great progress toward a general theory of biological diversity has been made since—the field of community ecology has incorporated many of the ideas in “Homage to Santa Rosalia”—but we are still short of a theory that can predict the number of animal species. We are also short of a theory that can predict how many of these species will become extinct over the next 50 years. Hutchinson foresaw the importance of many of the factors currently driving global change, including the social factors. By the 1950s, he was concerned that human transformation of the biosphere was so great that developing a theory of diversity might be precluded by the irreversible loss of biodiversity. It is fascinating to read Hutchinson's writings from our perspective in the 21st century because he clearly laid the foundations of biodiversity science. Biodiversity science is the emerging transdisciplinary field that integrates taxonomy, systematics, ecology, evolution, and conservation biology with the social and economic aspects of governance of biological diversity.
The recent publication of 2 books focused on Hutchinson and his writings make it easier than ever to appreciate his extraordinary influence. G. Evelyn Hutchinson and the Invention of Modern Ecology by N. G. Slack conveys much of what was inspiring about the man. The other, The Art of Ecology: Writings of G. Evelyn Hutchinson, edited by D. K. Skelly, D. M. Post, and M. D. Smith (all faculty at Yale University, Hutchinson's academic home), conveys the breadth of his writings. These books complement each other nicely, and when read together, foster a deep appreciation of Hutchinson the scientist, his approaches, and his ideas. One can read the classic papers on n-dimensional niche space and paradox of the plankton, and in the same sitting, learn the story of how Hutchinson came to be a professor at Yale without a PhD.
The Art of Ecology is a valuable anthology, containing Hutchinson's writings on 5 broad themes: his life story, his vision for science, his contributions to limnology and theory, and his passion for museums. An introductory essay accompanies each section. For example, Sharon Kingsland's “Introduction” provides an insightful comparison between Hutchinson and von Humboldt and their shared vision on the aesthetic and intellectual value of science as a means for personal development through the contemplation of nature. Kingsland's chapter also reminds us of the great value Hutchinson placed on the historical roots of ideas, as shown by the many footnotes that detail his writing.
Hutchinson is perhaps best known for his seminal contributions to limnology and community ecology. We find most of his classic papers from “Copepodology for Ornithologists” to “The Paradox of the Plankton” in this anthology. Most of us will not have read these since graduate school, but again we see the benefits of having them gathered together. It becomes easier to appreciate that Hutchinson was driven by a fundamental curiosity for nature, coupled with a desire to enhance the appreciation of the diversity of all organisms, even the most cryptic and uncharismatic. Ultimately, he advanced general theory by challenging ecologists to consider the embellishments of natural systems (e.g., nonequilibrium dynamics, multidimensional niches) necessary to explain the remarkable diversity of all groups from copepods and diatoms to beetles and warblers.
Slack's book is largely a detailed biography of the man many consider the father of modern ecology (even if Hutchinson himself did not) and of limnology. In addition to insight into the man's family life as a child and adult, we learn about his professional relationships, largely through Slack's perusal of the enormous collection of his letters in the Yale archives. Furthermore, as evidenced by the presence of the oft-cited Hutchinson “intellectual family tree” (Edmondson 1971), he left a large legacy through his students, including many pioneering women. As also demonstrated in the anthology, Hutchinson was a polymath who contributed to, or drew on influences from, art history to prehistoric archeology to psychoanalysis.
Hutchinson's less well-known contributions to ecology, including conservation science and environmental science, come to light in Slack's book. As a pioneering researcher of biogeochemistry, particularly in limnology, Hutchinson was interested in the alteration of biogeochemical cycles by human activity, including climate change, in the 1940s. As a leader in the field, he was frequently consulted on the problem of eutrophication in water bodies. However, above all, Hutchinson considered himself a “philosophic naturalist … delighting in the understanding of nature” rather than an “engineer … attempting to reform her” (Hutchinson 1943).
Driven by his interest in diversity, Hutchinson argued for the preservation of natural conditions through reserves, or what he called “living museums,” to better allow the study of natural communities. Hutchinson called for the preservation of natural areas for fish close to home in Connecticut and in Lake Malawi, for whales in Japan, and for large mammals in Africa and for conservation of Aldabra Island (Seychelles). Furthermore, Hutchinson saw early on (1950s) the connection between conservation and human society and psychology, arguing for the inclusion of such fields in a new conservation program at Yale. We also learn in the Slack book that Hutchinson recognized the important role of taxonomists in research on species diversity and that he was vehemently opposed to the elimination of curatorial and research positions in museums, a clarion call still relevant today. As Hutchinson put it, “We can never hope to understand this incredible phenomenon, life, of which we are a part, if we permit a major portion of the evidence or data bank to be expunged” (Slack 2010, p. 305).
Overall, we learn that Hutchinson believed that science should not be dedicated to controlling nature, but to advancing our appreciation and knowledge of its remarkable beauty and diversity. Through this knowledge, we will come to better understand ourselves and learn enough to avoid destroying the living systems on which human society depends. The echoes of his philosophy reverberate today. We wonder what Hutchinson's reaction would be to the new Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service (IPBES) created by the United Nations at the close of the International Year of Biodiversity (2010). We think he would have applauded the efforts of many scientists to bring the loss of biological diversity and its associated effects on ecosystem function to the attention of the world's governments. He would, no doubt, have recognized the importance of fundamental conservation science as a foundation for policy, but he may also have called for a less utilitarian and economic basis for ecosystem conservation.
We recommend these books to anyone wanting to learn more about one of the giants of ecology. Each book affords new insights, but it is when they are read together that one begins to discern the full stature of G. Evelyn Hutchinson, the man and the scientist.