The Meaning of Ecology

Northern Harrier in the rain. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The word ecology derives from the Greek word οἶκος (oikos, home, household). The German zoologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term in late nineteenth century in order to describe relations between animals and animals with their environment.

Late nineteenth century was just as revolutionary as our time: the same aggression and thoughtlessness on all matters of the natural world.

This was a time when the footprint of humanity started crushing the world of animals and plants. Industrialization was the new paradigm for “progress.” Religious men, businessmen, politicians and academics wanted a piece of the action: controlling nature was at the heart of this emerging machine culture. Petroleum chemistry fueled the engines of production and destruction.

Haeckel and some of his contemporary European scientists could see that humans were ripping apart the delicate structures and relations in the natural world. Like the climate scientists of the twenty-first century, they thought that shining light on how nature works would enlighten the rulers and lessen the human threat to the environment.


They modeled their science, including the new ecology, on ancient Greek thought. Aristotle was especially insightful: he was the father of biology-ecology.

Charles Darwin was touched by Aristotle. He kept trying to explain how life began, but he faced persistent opposition from the millions of followers of the one-god religions preaching the creation of the universe in seven days and man’s unquestionable dominion over animals, plants and the Earth itself.

Darwin read in translation one of Aristotle’s zoological works, Parts of Animals. He was stunned. He thanked William Ogle, the editor and translator of the biological works of Aristotle. “I have rarely read anything which interested me more,” Darwin wrote. “From quotations which I had seen I had a high notion of Aristotle’s merits, but I had not the most remote notion what a wonderful man he was. [Carl] Linnaeus and [Georges] Cuvier have been my two gods, though in very different ways, but they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle.” (Darwin to Ogle, February 22, 1882 in Francis Darwin, ed., The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 2 Vols. (New York: Basic Books, 1959) II, 427.)

Linnaeus, 1707-1778, was a Swedish botanist and Cuvier, 1769-1832, was the French father of modern comparative anatomy and paleontology They were Darwin’s “gods.” They were, in fact, two of the greatest scientists of Europe who had studied Aristotle.

Georges Cuvier had no doubt Aristotle was a benefactor of mankind and one of the immortals. Cuvier had no doubt Aristotle, “the pupil of Plato, discovered and demonstrated more truths and did more scientific work, in one life of 62 years than 20 centuries after him.”

In addition, Cuvier said:

“We should consider Aristotle one of the greatest observers who ever lived. Without any doubt his genius for classifying was the most extraordinary ever produced by nature…. The great divisions and subdivisions of the animal kingdom by Aristotle are astonishingly precise. They have almost all resisted additions by science.” (Georges Cuvier, Histoire des sciences naturelles, 5 vols (Paris: Fortin, Masson, 1841) I, 130-149, 432.)


Theophrastus was a student of Aristotle who did for plants what his master had done for animals. He became a great botanist and agronomist, explaining the place of food crops in nature, including the role insects played in farming. He suggested what farmers could do to get a good harvest. He explained the diseases that the weather brought to trees and described the diseases of pulses and cereals. Like Hippocrates, he clearly thought that the influence of climate and soil on farming were decisive. He also reported how vegetables fight insects and weeds. (Theophrastus, History of Plants 8.7.6-7; 2.2.7-12; 4.14.2-14; 7.5.4-6, ed. Kaktos Philological Team (Athens: Kaktos, 1998).

These extraordinary scientific insights, following on the original biological and ecological contributions of Aristotle, were some of the first ecological principles and biological pest management observations in history.

Theophrastus had a lasting influence among botanists, and students of the natural world and farmers for several centuries.

The Roman writer, Pliny the Elder, reported in late first century that farmers “have tried every possibility” in improving their trees. Grafting, Pliny said, has been perfected. (Pliny, Natural HistoryXV.57, tr. John F. Healy, London: Penguin Books, 1991.)

Ecology in the abstract

European and American scientists mined these ecological insights for understanding and defending the natural world. They created ecological academic disciplines and teaching. They said they focused on ecology, bio-ecology, agro-ecology, environmental biology and environmental sciences and environmental studies: all dealing with relations, from the molecular level to species, to relations and connections of animals and plants in the vast natural world and the impact of humans on the evolution, survival or extinction of animals and plants.

Divine nature: ecological gods

What is missing in modern ecology is the reverence ancient people had for the natural world. Peasants started their days with a respectful thought about the land, the seed and the divinities in nature. They may have made an offering in a rural altar. In contrast, our modern organic farmer using agroecology still thinks in materialistic ways: soil, organic fertilizers, insects, seeds, government regulations.

The Greeks, Chinese, Egyptians and other ancient people had imagined gods being part of the cosmos and the natural world. Aristotle and Theophrastus did their biological investigations at a time when Demeter, goddess of wheat, was one of the most powerful and beloved deities in the Greek pantheon. She was as close to being Earth as Earth itself. She was the mother of all things agrarian. The Eleusinian Mysteries honored Demeter. It was the greatest religious and agricultural celebration in Greece.

Dionysos, god of grape vines, wine, and rural life, was large in the life of the peasants and city rulers. Athens had two annual celebrations of Dionysos.

Athena, daughter of Zeus, goddess of wisdom, gifted the olive tree to Athens that named itself after this divine being. Athenians, in addition, honored Athena with the magnificent Parthenon, which they dedicated to Athena Parthenos (Virgin Athena).

Pan was the god of flocks: domesticated animals. Artemis was the goddess of wild animals and the natural world.

Aristaios, son of Apollo, was brought up by Gaia (Earth) and Horai (goddesses of the seasons). He was god of healing, prophesy, honeybees, beekeeping, shepherding, olive-growing, and cheesemaking.

These agricultural or ecological gods added an invisible and rarely spoken duty of environmental protection among the Greeks. The respect and love members of a family felt for each other metastasized to the broad and beautiful expanses of olive groves, vineyards, wheat fields, rivers, lakes, forests – the cosmos.

The paradigm of ecological civilization

I am not saying ancient Greeks were perfect or vegetarian. Despite Pythagoras teaching against eating animals, the Greeks ate meat. But, in very broad terms, the Greeks, like the Chinese, worked with ethical traditions and politics infused with ecological wisdom. The idea of willfully driving a species to extinction was alien to them.

We need to revive this ancient ecology and make it a glue of our culture, transform it to ecological civilization. The Chinese have been trying to do that.

And after Americans get rid of Trump, the country should join China in establishing a global ecological civilization.

The sooner this happens, the better. In 2019, Ecological civilization primarily means no more fossil fuels or pesticides and a rapid return to organic family farming. Stopping eating meat would help enormously in reducing the huge and deadly amounts of carbon and other greenhouse gases climbing daily to the clouds. These giant transformations might tame the monster of climate change – giving us more time for completing an ecological world. We can then enjoy civilized living.

As part of this global transformation, I see no reason why Greece cannot recall its ancient civilization. Millions of tourists visit the country every year just to see the ruins of that civilization. Imagine the result of a Hellenic culture with the temples of the gods back in their original places, the Olympics, the Platonic Academy and, above all, Greece living the principles of Hellas. The country could become the center of ecological civilization in Europe: no more fossil fuels. The Sun god Helios could provide the country’s energy. Greece, once again, becoming the model for examined and good life graced with respect for the natural world that, in reality, keeps us alive and thriving.

Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D., studied history and biology at the University of Illinois; earned his Ph.D. in Greek and European history at the University of Wisconsin; did postdoctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard. He worked on Capitol Hill and the US EPA; taught at several universities and authored several books, including The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer and its Demise.