When Was “Ecology”?

Virtually every account of the history of ecology credits Ernst Haeckel for inventing the term, which combines the Greek oikos, for “house,” and logia, for “study,” in 1866. Plant physiologist and historian of science Peter Ayres writes, “Few would dispute that the term ‘ecology’ (öikologie) was coined by the German zoologist, Ernst Haeckel, in a publication of 1866. It was used with increasing frequency by biologists in the 1880s and 1890s, gradually creeping into everyday English language in the 20th century.”[1] Historian Frank N. Egerton agrees, claiming that Haeckel “named and defined a new science, ‘Oecologie,’” in his 1866 Generelle Morphologie der Organismen.[2] Haeckel’s book defined ecology as “the whole science of the relations of the organism to the environment including, in the broad sense, all the ‘conditions of existence.’”[3] This origin story is at least as old as pioneering ecologist Arthur Tansley, who said in a 1947 retrospective of his field that “the word was coined by Ernst Häckel, but it did not come into general use for many years.”[4] But is this origin story really true? Did Haeckel really invent the term?

I decided to use Google Ngram Viewer to find out if the history of the word “ecology” in print matches up to the accounts of Ayres, Egerton, and Tansley. Ngram is a tool you’ll frequently see in “easy and fun introductions to digital humanities” presentations. It allows you to search Google’s corpus of digitized books for keywords or key phrases and find out how the frequency of these words/phrases changed over time. For example, I mapped out the frequency of “ecology” against “natural history” in order to confirm what most people interested in the history of biology already suspect. “Ecology” rises from a frequency of 0.00000% (of the books in the Google Books corpus) in 1800 to a high of 0.00087% in 1996, before slightly dropping off (a drop-off that would be interesting to investigate) between 1996 and 2007, while “natural history” declines from a relative peak in 1834 but never disappears.

ngram viewer ecology natural history

This is a fairly predictable trajectory given what we know: “ecology” begins to gain traction in the 1880s and 1890s, while “natural history”—a more amateur, less systematic study of nature—is popular in the Victorian era but gradually, though never fully, gives way to more systematic and professional forms of biological research. So far, Ngram seems to confirm the hypothesis of Ayres, Egerton, Tansley, and other historians of science.

But if we adjust our Ngram search parameters to search for “ecology” between 1810 and 1866, the year Haeckel supposedly invented the term, a curious thing happens: we see instances of the word appearing prior to 1866:

ngram viewer ecology

These percentages are tiny, and most of the instances of “ecology” appearing in print before 1866 are false positives—either books misdated or words misread by text-reading programs, which often mistake “geology” for “ecology.” There is, however, at least one exception: an 1829 article in The Gentleman’s Magazine.

stray thoughts

What is this “oikology” that has so annoyed the author of “Stray Thoughts” for its pretentious, unnecessarily technical aura? To find out, I looked for the Athenaeum article that the author refers to. I don’t have access to Athenaeum archives, but via The Athenaeum Projects I did find an abstract of the offending article, “On Oikology”:

[Response to an article outwith the Athenaeum. This is “the last number” of the “Quarterly Review”. The relevant piece is entitled “Condition of the Lower Orders”. The Athenaeum essay is a discussion of the emergent discipline of political economy and the debate as to its “nature”, with reference to the issue of “consolidating small farms”. Is “political economy” a pure science or a set of rules for conduct based on practical experience? Might its development resemble the development of other disciplines, as, for example the emergence of astronomy from astrology, from an omnipotent to a marginal status in the affairs of mankind, finally to attain the status of a pure science? The writer eventually seems to suggest that the “management of the state” is best served by a combination of practical sense and philosophy][5]

The debate continued in subsequent issues of The Athenaeum. Here, “oikology” seems to refer not to natural organisms’ relations, but to a more scientific version of the study of political economy. “Ecology,” then, might have a secret prehistory as scientific economics and political science. Such a prehistory aligns well with Donald Worster’s insight, in Nature’s Economy, that economic and political metaphors have long structured our understanding of relationships among different species in an environment.[6]

Ngram seems largely to reaffirm the historians’ view that “ecology” (or its equivalents in other languages) in the modern sense of the term did not exist until Haeckel’s coinage in 1866. Yet this minor blip in The Athenaeum and The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1829 suggests that things might have gone differently. With the budding scientific establishment’s grasping for new terms to describe and authorize new sciences, a trend that irritated the “Stray Thoughts” author, someone was bound to stumble upon the term “ecology” sooner or later, but its meaning was not inevitable. Had The Athenaeum’s usage caught on, “ecology” (or “oikology”) might mean political science today. As it stands, ecology continued to be haunted by its politico-economic counterparts, which supplied its dominant metaphors, from the nineteenth century on.


[1] Ayres, Shaping Ecology: The Life of Arthur Tansley (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2012), 15.

[2] Egerton, “A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 47: Ernst Haeckel’s Ecology,” Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 94.3 (July 2013), 222.

[3] Quoted in ibid., 226. The translation is from R.C. Stauffer’s 1957 “Haeckel, Darwin and ecology,” Quarterly Review of Biology 32.

[4] Tansley, “The Early History of Modern Plant Ecology in Britain,” Journal of Ecology 35.1/2 (December 1947), 130.

[5] The Athenaeum Projects, 097.

[6] Worster, Nature’s Economy: The Roots of Ecology (San Franciscos: Sierra Club Books, 1977), 37, 291-315, et passim.

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