Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 32, Issue 3, pp 439-463

First online:

Allied Sciences and Fundamental Problems:C.C. Adams and the Search for Method in Early AmericanEcology

  • Juan IlerbaigAffiliated withUniversity of MinnesotaTate Laboratory of Physics

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Historians of American ecology see early ecologists' advocacy of the experimental method as an example that illustrates how turn-of-the-century American biology favored manipulative methods of study. Historians have begun to show how the belief in the superiority of interventionist methods was only one of the reasons behind this trend, in addition to pragmatism and the need for legitimizaton. This paper contributes to the examination of such methodological issues in ecology through a study of the early career of Charles Christopher Adams (1873–1955). Unlike contemporary ecologists such as Frederic Clements or Victor Shelford, Adams encouraged fellow ecologists to adopt descriptive methodologies based on taxonomy. To understand this seemingly paradoxical case, this paper argues for a broadening of the historiography of turn-of-the-century biology, paying increased attention to neighboring disciplines, non-academic institutions, and a wider range of philosophical commitments. In particular, the paper argues that Adams's commitment to the significance of history and the changes in his institutional affiliations shaped his early ecological work, his views on ecological method, and his conception of ecology as a science. For Adams, ecology shared with such other natural historical sciences as anthropology and geology a commitment to the historicity of evolutionary processes. Thus, he took these “allied sciences” as models for ecology early in his career, encouraging other naturalists to adopt the historical perspective of these disciplines. However, as Adams's institutional affiliation changed from museum to university, his commitment to history was overshadowed by the use of a more inclusive rhetoric of unification. He searched for concepts that could accommodate both evolutionary and physiological explanations in an attempt to counter the forces of divergence within biology.

C.C. Adams history of ecology animal ecology biogeography natural historical sciences method in ecology