Ecology G. Evelyn Hutchinson
by
David K. Skelly
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0096

Introduction

George Evelyn Hutchinson (b. 13 January 1903–d. 17 May 1991) was one of the foremost figures in ecology during the 20th century. Raised in Cambridge, England, he attended university there as well. After a stint in South Africa, he moved to Yale University where he was on the faculty for more than four decades. Throughout his life he had a fascination with the natural world. His drive to observe and understand natural patterns was the foundation of his science. He used his encyclopedic knowledge to connect observations to one another allowing him to form hypotheses that have developed into enduring principles within the field of ecology. Hutchinson wrote on a staggeringly diverse array of topics including everything from the paranormal to illuminated medieval manuscripts. But his primary research revolved around two themes. Early in his career, working within lakes, he was one of the first scientists to connect physical and chemical conditions to biological processes and patterns. His efforts helped to forge limnology (the study of lakes) into a mechanistic discipline in which these systems could be understood through the study of principles that transcended the particularities of individual lakes. His approach also fostered a new discipline, ecosystem ecology, focused on the movement of materials and energy through biological systems. Later in his career he turned his attention to populations and communities of species. During an especially productive period running from the late 1940s through the early 1960s he wrote several papers that have become classics and remain critical to the pursuit of ecological understanding. Many were aimed at understanding species coexistence. He strongly advocated quantitative approaches to studying ecological problems. He is particularly known for revamping an existing concept, the ecological niche, into a more robust and explicit idea in which a species distribution is mapped onto axes of environmental variation. This powerful approach continues to enjoy widespread use today.

General Overviews

Hutchinson’s place within the history of ecology is well described in Kingsland 1995, a history of the development of population ecology during the 20th century. Hutchinson’s approach as a scientist and mentor is considered in Slobodkin and Slack 1999, an essay written by one of his former students, Larry Slobodkin, and Nancy Slack, who went on to write his biography. Skelly, et al. 2010 offers an anthology of Hutchinson’s writings along with interpretive essays covering several themes characterizing his work.

  • Kingsland, Sharon E. 1995. Modeling nature: Episodes in the history of population ecology. 2d ed. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    An overview of ecological theory by a noted historian of science. While not specifically about Hutchinson, he is a major figure in the book as are several of his students. Hutchinson’s role as an innovator and his influence on the development of ecology as a modern science are important themes.

  • Skelly, David K., Post, David M., and Smith, Melinda D., eds. 2010. The art of ecology: Writings of G. Evelyn Hutchinson. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

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    A selection of more than two dozen examples of Hutchinson’s writings. Reprinted writings are presented in sections headed with essays by scientists reflecting on the ongoing importance of Hutchinson’s contributions in a variety of intellectual spheres. Includes a list of publications authored by Hutchinson.

  • Slobodkin, Larry B., and Nancy G. Slack. 1999. George Evelyn Hutchinson: 20th century ecologist. Endeavour 23.1: 24–29.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0160-9327(99)01182-5E-mail Citation »

    An examination of Hutchinson’s role as a mentor and creator of a scientific school. His approach is juxtaposed against one of his contemporaries at Yale, Ross Harrison. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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