What can history tell us about the past, present, and future of ecology: A case study from the physiological ecology of desert mammals
The Ecological Society of America has a long tradition of encouraging history of ecology, both by its members and professional historians. Despite shared interests and fruitful interactions, historians and ecologists are likely to take different historical perspectives. Although some ecologists may pursue history for its own sake, most are interested in how the past can be used to understand the present – and perhaps shape the future. This type of history can take a number of forms including acknowledging precursors, celebrating research traditions and schools, using past controversies to shed light on current issues, uncovering the historical roots of persistently erroneous positions, and teaching students about the process of doing science. Professional historians often recoil against such “presentist” uses of history, arguing that past events need to be understood within their own unique social, cultural, and intellectual contexts. Nonetheless, particularly for historians who deal with recent events, the present is rarely completely ignored.
Using a case study from post-World War II physiological ecology, I will examine similarities and differences in the ways that ecologists and historians might interpret this episode. After the war, studies of adaptation to harsh environments provided an interdisciplinary meeting ground for a diverse array of comparative physiologists, ecologists, and evolutionary biologists. In particular, I will discuss research on how mammals adapt to hot desert conditions. These “classic” studies on animals from kangaroo rats to camels have become standard textbook fare, but also gave rise to lineages of questions that continue to interest ecologists. From a historical perspective, the episode also provides a rich context for examining how social, political, military, and economic concerns shaped the development of ecology during the late twentieth century.