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The Boston Globe

Ideas

Q&A | ideas

Were Aristotle and Thoreau ecologists?

Frank Egerton traces the early rumblings of a powerful human idea

We tend to think of the environment as a modern concern, and in many respects it is. As a political movement, environmentalism barely existed before the 1960s, and the word “ecology”—which gave scientists a way to talk about the interrelationships that drive the natural world—didn’t exist until the 19th century.

But long before that, ideas about relationships in nature were percolating through the culture, both in the West and elsewhere. Early evidence includes eighth century Arabic writings on zoology, Medieval European texts on falconry, descriptions of the life cycles of medicinal plants, and explorers’ accounts of North America’s flora and fauna.

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