In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Systems Ecology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Anthologies
  • Textbooks
  • Symposium Volumes

Ecology Systems Ecology
Clay L. Montague
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0078


Systems ecology is an approach to ecosystem study based on formal procedures of systems thinking, synthesis, and modeling. Its goals are those of ecosystem ecology in general: develop and test theory of ecosystem organization; detect and manage emergent properties; and predict responses to disturbance. It involves aspects of Mathematical Ecology and Simulation Modeling, with emphasis on ecosystem management aspects of Human Ecology and Applied Ecology. It arose circa 1960 after computers became available and systems analysis had been successfully applied in military and industrial settings. By this time computerized techniques were widely used in engineering. Cybernetics, general systems theory, and the concepts of holism and ecosystem had already undergone several decades of discussion and development. Systems ecology thus began with the opportunity to find computerized solutions for complex mathematical models so that constraints and solution inaccuracies imposed by simplified models of ecosystems could be released, and debate about ecosystem organization more systematically explored. Interacting with the computer spawned a rich array of tools for ecosystem analysis and generated hypotheses of ecosystem development. As the field grew, contributions to ecosystems theory became better articulated and more practical, and a wider realm of systems thinking was incorporated. Systems ecologists became less distinguishable from other ecosystem ecologists, but teaching systems analysis and simulation, and critique and oversight of modeling efforts remain characteristic professional duties. Common traits of successful systems ecologists include familiarity with systems methodology; ability to synthesize a system from a breadth of information; and fascination with self-organization, response to disturbance, and emergent properties of ecosystems. Today systems ecology involves two compatible and overlapping visions, discussible as soft systems and hard science. The soft systems vision recognizes enormous complexity of ecosystems, impractical to fully know, experiencing continual evolution, but whose behavior can be observed, hypothesized, and tested from many equally valid perspectives involving various levels of detail. Background for this approach includes cybernetics, general systems theory, epistemology, anthropology, industrial management, and evolutionary theory. The hard science vision seeks reliable laws of nature common to all ecosystems, powerful enough to predict equilibrium tendencies even in the absence of empirical evidence, which may be too difficult to obtain soon enough. Background includes thermodynamics, evolutionary genetics, and mathematical descriptions of population and trophic interactions. To test ideas, both visions require interplay of computer models, experiments, and field observations. The amalgam of two visions continues to contribute advances such as adaptive ecosystem management, theory of complex ecosystems, resilience theory, ecological engineering, ecological economics, Landscape Ecology, and empirical search for warnings of ecosystem collapse and functions of biodiversity.

General Overviews and Anthologies

Comprehensive general overviews of systems ecology as a field are relatively few. For some the field is narrowly focused on ecosystem modeling and the techniques of systems analysis applied to ecosystems; however the original intent of the field was much broader. The origin of the term “systems ecology” and the breadth of this new field are found in E. P. Odum’s “The New Ecology” (Odum 1964). Odum sees computers and the mathematical systems approach as powerful means to advance theory of ecosystem self-organization and establish principles of ecosystem management. The overview of Van Dyne 1969 is perhaps the most inclusive. In it the author envisions systems ecology as an interdisciplinary endeavor that involves teamwork, data management, and synthesis skills well beyond applying mathematical systems analysis tools to ecosystems. According to Van Dyne, systems ecologists needed “to be conversant with specialists” (p. 31) and to retain “a holistic or systems viewpoint” (p. 35). In an anthology of twenty-seven benchmark papers in systems ecology, Shugart and O’Neill 1979 provides other overviews and their own comments. The editors’ introduction to the collection itself is a good overview, and separate commentaries apply to specific sets of papers. They also provide comments on the historical foundations of systems ecology. A critical overview of systems analysis in ecology was given by Dale 1970. At that time, new courses in systems ecology were being developed at several universities. A few of these were described at a 1975 symposium by Patten 1977 at the University of Georgia, Van Dyne 1977 at Colorado State University, and Innis and Cheslak 1977 at Utah State University. The set illustrates some of the similarities and differences of perspective on the field. A brief review of holism and reductionism in ecology by Wiegert 1988 identifies systems ecology as an interplay that joins these ends of the philosophical spectrum. Wiegert points out that systems ecology involves systems analysis tools that marry details of ecosystem structure to the overall functions and dynamics of ecosystems. One classic debate in ecology to which systems ecologists have contributed is Reductionism Versus Holism. Effective practice of systems ecology employs both reductionism and holism. The combination has led to advances such as Adaptive Environmental Assessment and Management, ecological engineering, and ecological economics.

  • Dale, M. B. 1970. Systems analysis and ecology. Ecology 51:1–16.

    A critical review of applications of systems analysis techniques in ecology in the early years of the field. Dale relates systems analysis to heuristics (the process of problem solving) and to the scientific method, pointing the way toward beneficial uses of these approaches for understanding cause and effect in ecosystems.

  • Innis, George S., and Edward F. Cheslak. 1977. Systems ecology: An introductory course sequence. Paper presented at a conference held at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, in 1975. In New directions in the analysis of ecological systems: Part 1. Edited by George S. Innis, 25–34. La Jolla, CA: Simulation Councils.

    An account of the development of systems ecology courses at Utah State University in the early 1970s based on Jay W. Forrester’s approach to system dynamics (formerly known as industrial dynamics). Innis was among the first users of Forrester’s approach for ecosystem modeling, and an early proponent of systems ecology.

  • Odum, Eugene P. 1964. The new ecology. BioScience 14:14–16.

    DOI: 10.2307/1293228

    Origin of the term “systems ecology.” Identifies broad focus for studying ecosystems as complex wholes using computerized methods of systems analysis to study ecosystem homeostasis, emergent properties, response to perturbations; and examine emerging issues like space travel and radionuclide contamination, manage natural resources, and prevent irreversible damage to life support.

  • Patten, Bernard C. 1977. Ecosystem as a coevolutionary unit: A theme for teaching systems ecology. Paper presented at a conference held at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, in 1975. In New directions in the analysis of ecological systems: Part 1. Edited by George S. Innis, 1–8. La Jolla, CA: Simulation Councils.

    A description of systems ecology courses at University of Georgia by one of the originators of the field. Patten expresses a distinctively theoretical interest in ecosystem organization, a desire to abstract causality in ecosystems, and an interest in mathematical systems theory, but without specific focus on practical ecosystem management applications.

  • Shugart, Herman H., and Robert V. O’Neill, eds. 1979. Systems ecology. Stroudsburg, PA: Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross.

    An anthology of foundation papers in systems ecology with commentary by the editors. Commentaries include an introductory representation of systems ecology as a field. Papers are loosely grouped according to contributions to the development of systems ecology, and additional commentaries are given by grouping.

  • Van Dyne, George M. 1969. Ecosystems, systems ecology, and systems ecologists. In Readings in conservation ecology. Edited by G. W. Cox, 21–47. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

    A reworking of a 1966 report of the same title (Publication No. ORNL-3957, UC-48 – Biology and Medicine; Publication No. 161 of the Radiation Ecology Section, Health Physics Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 1966). Timelessly defines the field of systems ecology as “the development, dynamics, and disruption of ecosystems” (p. 27). Identifies an overarching purpose: to integrate and synthesize research in order to understand and manage the world’s ecosystems. Lays a broad interdisciplinary foundation with systems analysis, simulation, synthesis, and remote sensing as valuable tools.

  • Van Dyne, George M. 1977. Content, evolution, and educational impacts of a systems ecology course sequence. Paper presented at a conference held at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, in 1975. In New directions in the analysis of ecological systems: Part 1. Edited by George S. Innis, 9–23. La Jolla, CA: Simulation Councils.

    An evaluative representation of systems ecology courses at Colorado State University. Commitment to a systems approach in ecology is apparent. However, the broad perspective espoused in his original definition of systems ecology (Van Dyne 1969) is not as evident, seemingly attributed to difficulty of orienting students to systems mathematics.

  • Wiegert, Richard G. 1988. Holism and reductionism in ecology: Hypotheses, scales, and systems models. Oikos 53:267–269.

    DOI: 10.2307/3566072

    This oft-cited paper identifies systems ecology as exploring the interface between the internal complexity ecosystems, and their overall functions, such as homeostasis, biodiversity, biomass production, and element recycling. As such, systems ecology transcends polar philosophies of holism and reductionism by integrating and evaluating the state of knowledge in ecology.

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