The "Cycle of Life": A History of Ecology
Yale University, HSHM 423B
Spring 2006
Tuesdays, Thursdays 1:00-2:15
Room: 205 WLH (William L. Harkness Hall, 100 Wall St.)

Instructor: Lloyd Ackert
History of Science, History of Medicine
Whitney Humanities Center, Rm. 324
53 Wall Street, New Haven

"Everything that the plants take from the air they give to animals,
the animals return it to the air. This is the eternal circle
in which life revolves but where matter only changes place."

Jean Baptiste Dumas, 1842

The concept of a "cycle of life" appears throughout the history of scientific ecology from its origins in early nineteenth century Humboldtian plant geography to twentieth century ecosystem ecology. Known to us by several names, this concept can always be identified by its attempt to unify natural phenomena into a complex of cycles. Whether expressed in terms of energy, matter, or species, cycles of "life" are intended to explain HOLISTICALLY the interrelationships between organisms and their environment.

***This semester, I am implementing a Virtual and Materials exhibit on the "Cycle of Life" that will appear in several libraries across Yale University and on the web at If interested, Students will be welcome to contribute to this exhibit, and we will certainly take time for an excursion to view it.

Organized around metaphors related to the concept of the "cycle of life" concept, this course will draw together disciplines as varied as botany, physics, soil science, biogeochemistry and bacteriology. It will demonstrate to students that these fields share a long history and a common language. Through the study of metaphor, this course will succeed in crossing cultural and national boundaries, which are often restrictive to historical investigations. We will trace developments in the cycle of life concept for a variety of scientific disciplines in their German, French, Russian, British, and American contexts. To provide continuity for these often overlapping developments, the course will be organized into three parts: 1) the foundations for the concept of the "cycle of life," 2) its explication, and 3) its propagation.

This course will explore the history of the concept of the "cycle of life" by discussing a series of scientific debates related to the development of ecosystem ecology. Students will study these debates by reading secondary sources for historical context and primary scientific sources for access to the original presentations of the ideas that were being debated. In class meetings we will connect the social and cognitive aspects of the week’s readings by interpreting the use of the abundant metaphors that appeared in published scientific reports. For each week I have suggested topics for discussion, but participants are encouraged and expected to contribute their own perspectives. Discussions will follow the interests of the class.

-Class Participation and Occasional thought pieces, 20%
-A 20 page paper discussing a metaphor related to the concept of the cycle of life, 70% (This project will be broken into several stages (along the lines of Senior Essays): Paper proposals and research plan, Bibliography, and a series of drafts of increasing length until the first complete draft. I will work closely with students to organize a topic, edit the subsequent drafts, and prepare the final version. At the end of the course, students will be invited to contribute their essay to a compilation for the other students in the course.)
-Students will make a single formal Oral/PowerPoint presentation on their research, 10%

Books required:
Books can be purchased at Labyrinth Books, 290 York St., New Haven, CT, 06511; Telephone 787-2848, and will be on reserve at the Cross Campus Library (CCL).

Joel B. Hagen, An Entangled Bank: The Origins of Ecosystem Ecology (New Brunswick, N.J., Rutgers University Press, 1992).

George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2003), edited, with a new introduction, by David Lowenthal; forward by William Cronon; Weyerhauser Environmental Classics Series.

There will also be a packet of course readings available for purchase ($60.00) at York Copy Center, 284 York St., New Haven, CT, 06511; Telephone 777-1111.

The Foundations for the Concept of the Cycle of Life—A Departure
from Romanticism

Week One: Introduction to the course objectives and methods

Jan 10
We will examine how scientists used various metaphors related to the concept of the “cycle of life” as a way to integrate the social and cognitive aspects of the history of science and ecology.

Jan 12 I will bring copies of this week’s readings for students. Todes analyzes evolutionary metaphors in his discussion of the reception of Darwinism in Russia.

- Daniel P. Todes, Darwin Without Malthus: The Struggle for Existence in Russian Evolutionary Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), Introduction, pp. 3-23.

Week Two: A Departure from Romanticism

Jan 17, 19 The context for Humboldt’s plant geography is his reaction to Romanticism and Naturphilosophie of Goethe and Shiller. Also, Humboldt’s "botanical arithmetic" and plant geography launches two new schools of thought—the Northern in Germany, and Southern in France.

- Janet Browne, The Secular Ark: Studies in the History of Biogeography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), pp. 1-57.
- Malcolm Nicolson, "Humboldtian Plant Geography after Humboldt: the Link to Ecology" British Journal for the History of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), Vol. 9, Part 3, No. 102, pp. 289-310.

Discussion: Humboldt’s terms "assemblages" and "associations."

Week Three: The Concept of the "Cycle of Life"

Jan 24, 26
Drawing on the chemist, Antoine Lavoisier’s organic chemistry, the French chemists Jean Baptist Dumas and Jean Baptiste Boussingault developed a cyclical view of the natural world combining the plant and animal kingdoms in a mechanistic system. This period also was witness to “The Rise of Bacteriology” and the “Systematics and the Chemistry of Life.” The German botanist Ferdinand Cohn and the French chemist Louis Pasteur argue over the nature of fermentation, yet both envision nature as a "cycle of life."

- George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2003), Chapters 1-2.
- Patrice Debre, Louis Pasteur (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1994), trans. Elbourg Forster, pp. 82-114; 148-176.
- Ferdinand Cohn, Bacteria, the Smallest Living Beings (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1939), 11-37.

Discussion: The concept of the "cycle of life."

Week Four: The Ecological Significance of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

Jan 31, Feb 2 The Publication of Charles Darwin’s "On the Origin of Species," and other writings, inspired what is commonly called the "The Darwinian Revolution." No aspect of society escaped its influence, including the natural sciences. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is especially crucial for understanding his vision of an interconnected natural order.
In 1866, drawing on Darwin's evolutionary theory, Ernst Haeckel defined ecology as the total relations of the animal to both its organic and its inorganic environment. Haeckel is often accused of simply "coining" the term ecology, however, he was a science "superstar" who attracted large popular audiences for his scientific lectures and was renown in European scientific society in the second half of the nineteenth century.

- Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle of Life (London: John Murray, 1859), pp. 1-79.
- Michael Ruse, The Darwinian Revolution: Nature Red in Tooth and Claw (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), pp. 3-75.
- Anna Bramwell, Ecology in the Twentieth Century: a History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) pp. 1-63.

Discussion: Darwin's concept of a "struggle for existence and Haeckel's "ecology."

The Explication of the Concept of the "Cycle of Life"

Week Five: Darwinian Plant Ecology

Feb 7, 9 The study of Darwinian evolution contributed to the rise of plant ecology by infusing a dynamic view of local nature with experiences of exotic landscapes. In the late nineteenth century, a debate began on the constancy of species between the "pleiomorphists" and "monomorphists." Research in plant geography and plant physiology by Matthais Schleiden and William Hofmeister, and microscopic fungi research by Karl Nageli and Anton de Bary, set the stage for Eugenius Warming’s plant ecology.

- Eugene Cittadino, Nature as the Laboratory: Darwinian Plant Ecology in the German Empire, 1880-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 1-81.
- Eugenius Warming, OEcology of Plants: An Introduction to the Study of Plant-Communities (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1909), pp. 1-40 and Section II, "The Communal Life of Organisms," pp. 82 -91.

Discussion: Discuss the notion of the symbiosis in De Bary’s and Warming’s writings, and the concept of a "life cycle."

Week Six: The Physiology of Nature

Feb 14, 16 Nineteenth century research in physiology and physics shared not only the same concepts, such as the conservation of energy, but also the same participants, such as Robert Mayer. The physiology of Claude Bernard, Felix Hoppe-Seyler, and Robert Mayer is united by similar conceptualizations of energy and matter cycles.

- Marsh, George Perkins, Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2003), Chapter 3.
- Robert D. Purrington, Physics in the Nineteenth Century (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997), pp. 75-112.
- Claude Bernard, An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1957), trans. Henry C. Greene, 59-99.

Discussion: Bernard’s concept of "reciprocal harmony."

Week Seven: The Cycle of Life in Agricultural Chemistry.

Feb 21, 23 In Europe and the United States agricultural chemists trained in organic chemistry with Liebig in Germany, Johnston in Scotland, and Silliman in the U.S. This training taught them to see and investigate nature as the circulation of matter through the soil, plants, and animals and back into the soil. This led them to promote the use of various types of fertilizers and the scientific reform of agriculture.

- Margaret Rossiter, The Emergence of Agricultural Science: Justus Liebig and the Americans, 1840-1880 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1975), xi-67.
- Frederick Holmes, "Introduction" to Justus Liebig, Animal Chemistry, or Organic Chemistry in its Application to Physiology and Pathology, a Facsimile of the Cambridge Edition of 1842 (New York and London: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1964), in the series The Sources of Science, No. 4, vii-cxvi.

Week Eight: Autotrophism and Chemosynthesis

Feb 28, Mar 2 Andrei Famintsyn and Andrei Beketov were, respectively, the "Father of Russian Plant Physiology" and the "Father of Russian Botany." Their work provides the context for advances in microbiology at the end of the nineteenth century. Sergei Vinogradskii investigates the role of microbes in nature using Famintsyn's notion of a circulation of matter and energy and Beketov's interpretation of Darwinian evolution. He eventually discovers autotrophic organisms and names a new physiological type of life—chemosynthesis.

- Daniel P. Todes, Darwin Without Malthus: The Struggle for Existence in Russian Evolutionary Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 24-61.
- Sergei N. Vinogradskii, "On the Role of Microbes in the General Cycle of Life," The Proceedings of the St. Petersburg Society of Naturalists, 1897. We will use my own translation from the Russian version of this article.

Discussion: Examine Vinogradskii's concept of the "cycle of life."


The Propagation of the Cycle of Life Concept

Week Nine: The Biosphere Concept

Mar 21, 23 In the first quarter of the twentieth century Vladimir Vernadsky developed his biosphere concept, publishing it in La Biosphera in 1926. He drew on the ideas of Theihard de Chardin while in émigré status in Paris. Vernadsky's biosphere work drew on Vinogradskii’s research on autotrophic microorganisms in significant ways.

- Kendall Bailes, Science and Russian Culture in and Age of Revolutions: V. I. Vernadsky and His Scientific School, 1863-1945 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), pp. 37-79 and 179-198.
- V. I. Vernadsky, The Biosphere (Oracle, Arizona: Synergetic Press, 1986), pp. 6-72.

Discussion: The "biosphere" concept.


Week Ten: Russian Biogeochemistry: Living Matter and Biochemical Ecology

Mar 28, 30 The Vernadsky School expands in many disciplinary directions. Important representatives of the Vernadsky School, A. P. Vinogradov publishes The Geochemistry of Living Matter (1932) and V. V. Kovalevskii investigates the evolutionary processes in microorganisms to the level of the biosphere in Biochemical Ecology (1935).

- A. P. Vinogradov, The Elementary Chemical Composition of Marine Organisms (New Haven, Sears Foundation for Marine Research, Yale University, 1953), trans. Julia Efron and Jane K. Setlow, pp. to be decided.

Discussion: Examine the concept of "living matter."

Week Eleven: The Beginning of Ecological Soil Science

Apr 4, 6 After the Russian Civil War forces him to flee Russia, Vinogradskii finds a new home near Paris. At the age of 68 he renews his previous investigations and begins to promote his new "direct" method for studying microorganisms in the soil. This brings about an ecological soil microbiology. Vasili Omeliansky, previously Vinogradskii’s student, organizes an institute for soil microbiology and works on "living reactives." Omeliansky puts Selman Waksman, an American soil scientist, in touch with Vinogradskii. Waksman and Rene Dubos discover "antibiotics" through the ecological study of soil microorganisms.

- Joel B. Hagen, An Entangled Bank: The Origins of Ecosystem Ecology (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992), Chapters 1-5.
- Selman Waksman, Sergei N. Winogradsky His Life and Work: The Story of a Great Bacteriologist (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953), pp. 39-72.
- Selman Waksman, "Associative and Antagonistic Effects of Microorganisms: I. Historical Review of Antagonistic Relationships," Journal Series Paper, New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, Department of Soil Chemistry and Bacteriology, 1936, pp. 51-92.

Discussion: "Living reactives" and Waksman's use of the concept of the "cycle of life."

Week Twelve: Ecosystem Ecology

Apr 12, 14 In 1935, Arthur Tansley, the most eminent British ecologist between 1930 and 1955, coined the "ecosystem" concept. In large part Tansley was reacting against Frederick Clements, who emphasized dynamic processes in nature, but he must also be seen as part of developments in British ecology and soil science. Tansley's conceptual innovation took hold in the experimental program of Raymond Lindeman. Lindeman's research on Cedar Lake Bog in Minnesota, reflects not only Tansley's influences, but also the ideas of Vinogradskii via Waksman, and the ideas of Vernadsky via G. Evelyn Hutchinson.

Presentation of paper topics.

- Joel B. Hagen, An Entangled Bank: The Origins of Ecosystem Ecology (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992), Chapters 6-9.
- Raymond L. Lindeman, "The Trophic-Dynamic Aspect in Ecology" in Ecology, 1942, vol. 23, p. 399.(FIND ON "JSTOR")
- Donald Worster, Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), Second Edition, pp. 339-433.

Discussion: Hutchinson and Lindeman's concept of "equilibrium."


Week Thirteen: Conclusions: Organic Farming, "Deep Ecology"

Apr 18, 20 Concluding remarks: The concept of the "cycle of life" remains an important part of contemporary ecological and environmental debates, for example in James Lovelock's "Gaia" hypothesis. It also continues to have a strong spiritual resonance, for example in the recent scientific-religious movement of "Deep Ecology".

-James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth (New York: Norton, 1988), pp. xiii-41; 126-151.
-Do a web based exploration of web sites devoted to "Deep Ecology"

Discussion: "Deep Ecology" and "Gaia," and recap the course.