G. Evelyn Hutchinson and the Invention of Modern Ecology

A laudatory biography transports Benjamin Ivry back to the time of a great innovative scientist

March 10, 2011

Cambridge-born George Evelyn Hutchinson was rather more than a zoologist, limnologist and ecologist, which were among his leading professional identities; his good friend Rebecca West described Hutchinson in an essay two decades before his death in 1991 at age 88 as a "descendant of Merlin, a white warlock". Also in the 1970s, West spoke to an interviewer about Hutchinson's unique personal and intellectual charisma: "There are people whose minds you like to live with." In the middle of a scientific book, she recalled, Hutchinson would "suddenly tell you how the first person to discover the principle of territoriality in birds was Oliver Goldsmith".

This worshipful biography, although repetitive in the manner of a lecturer making sure her class has grasped the main facts (we are repeatedly informed, for example, that Hutchinson never earned a doctorate), has the great virtue of allowing the reader to live for a brief time in Hutchinson's company.

Written by Nancy Slack, emeritus professor of biology and the history of science at The Sage Colleges in Troy, New York, the book faithfully lays out the many scientific advances achieved by Hutchinson, most of them during his inspirational teaching career at Yale University, which began in 1928. No less a luminary than the late US palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould described Hutchinson as the "most important ecologist of the twentieth century", while in a foreword to the present book, the biologist Edward O. Wilson refers to Hutch (as his students called him) as the "last great Victorian naturalist".

The latter encomium is admittedly somewhat chronologically challenged, in so far as Hutchinson's birth year of 1903 was decidedly Edwardian. Still, it conveys Hutchinson's varied interests as a researcher who considered science as one of the arts, who asked why art museums should be differentiated from natural history museums, and who experienced genuine aesthetic thrills when noticing quantities of green pigeons, or asking fundamental questions, as in the subtitle of a famous 1958 paper, "Why are there so many kinds of animals?"

Slack manages to convey Hutchinson's donnish kindliness, generosity and rumpled charm, noting that a sign on his office door bore the teaching advice: "Do not discourage students. You are almost certain to succeed." Even so, Hutchinson was not immune from academic infighting and could show steely determination in political matters, as when he refused to accept the President's Medal of Science during the Nixon administration, and fought valiantly against the US military's use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War. Such down-to-earth practicality might not be expected of the son of an eminent University of Cambridge geologist, who might easily have dabbled in intellectual matters exclusively.

Yet Hutchinson always diligently sought practical applications of theory, as in his 1979 memoir The Kindly Fruits of the Earth: Recollections of an Embryo Ecologist, where he applies psychoanalytical theory garnered from a reading of Sigmund Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle to the behaviour of hermaphroditic snails. As one instance of Hutchinson's ability to find gold in unpromising subjects, one of his most prescient publications, The Biogeochemistry of Vertebrate Excretion (1950), focused on the importance of guano islands in ecological terms.

While innovating scientifically, Hutchinson always kept the arts in mind as exempla, as when he wrote home to his wife in 1981 after seeing Botticelli's St Augustine in His Cell, in Florence's Chiesa di Ognissanti, calling the 15th-century fresco a "good picture to try to live up to". Improbable as it may seem, in his life and work Hutchinson actually managed to do so.

G. Evelyn Hutchinson and the Invention of Modern Ecology

By Nancy G. Slack

Yale University Press, 448pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780300161380

Published 15 February 2011

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