human ecology


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Human ecology

The study of how the distributions and numbers of humans are determined by interactions with conspecific individuals, with members of other species, and with the abiotic environment. Human ecology encompasses both the responses of humans to, and the effects of humans on, the environment. Human ecology today is the combined result of humans' evolutionary nature and cultural developments. See Ecological communities, Ecosystem

Humans' strong positive and negative emotional responses to components of the environment evolved because our ancestors' responses to environmental information affected survival and reproductive success. Early humans needed to interpret signals from other organisms and the abiotic environment, and they needed to evaluate and select habitats and the resources there. These choices were emotionally driven. For example, food is one of the most important resources provided by the environment. Gathering food requires decisions of where to forage and what items to select. Anthropologists often use the theory of optimal foraging to interpret how these decisions are made. The theory postulates that as long as foragers have other valuable ways to spend their time or there are risks associated with seeking food, efficient foraging will be favored even when food is not scarce. This approach has facilitated development of simple foraging models and more elaborate models of food sharing and gender division of labor, symbolic communication, long-term subsistence change, and cross-cultural variation in subsistence practices.

Significant modification of the environment by people was initiated by the domestication of fire, used to change vegetation structure and influence populations of food plants and animals. Vegetation burning is still common in the world, particularly in tropic regions. The arrival of humans with sophisticated tools precipitated the next major transformation of Earth, the extinction of large vertebrates. Agriculture drove the third major human modification of environments. Today about 35–40% of terrestrial primary production is appropriated by people, and the percentage is rising.

Humans will continue to exert powerful influences on the functioning of the Earth's ecological systems. The human population is destined to increase for many years. Rising affluence will be accompanied by increased consumption of resources and, hence, greater appropriation of the Earth's primary production. Nevertheless, many future human ecology scenarios are possible, depending on how much the human population grows and how growth is accommodated, the efficiency with which humans use and recycle resources, and the value that people give to preservation of biodiversity. See Ecology, Environment

McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Bioscience. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

human ecology

the application of ecological principles to the understanding of the spatial distribution of social groups and the relationships among them. The approach was a product of the pioneering CHICAGO SCHOOL sociologists Robert PARK and Ernest Burgess, who employed it in their studies of urban society (see URBAN SOCIOLOGY). The term thus has often been used interchangeably with URBAN ECOLOGY. According to this view, cities develop in response to certain features of the physical environment (e.g. river banks) and act as ‘a great sorting mechanism’ in terms of the distribution of the populations which inhabit them. This process takes place according to the ecological principles of competition between social groups for scarce resources (ecological competition), for example, pressure on amenities and land drives up land values, by the invasion of urban space (ecological invasion) and by a succession of new populations (ecological succession). Eventually, this process creates a city with a series of concentric zones, in which inner city areas are characterized by commercial prosperity and decaying private houses, surrounded by older established neighbourhoods of workers, with the most affluent groups having retreated to the outlying suburbs. As groups continue to find central or near central zones unattractive, so further outward migration occurs, and new social groups (e.g. immigrant workers) move in.

The biologistic assumptions of human ecology meant that it eventually fell into disrepute, although Amos Hawley (Human Ecology: A Theory of Community Structure, 1950) attempted to revive the approach by focusing on the interdependence of occupationally differentiated areas, rather than on the competition between groups for scarce resources. Generally, however, it remains the case that the ecological approach of the Chicago school underplayed the importance of planning in terms of city development, and ignored the probable uniqueness of the USA experience compared with cities elsewhere.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000

human ecology

[′hyü·mən ē′käl·ə·jē]
(ecology)
The branch of ecology that considers the relations of individual persons and of human communities with their particular environment.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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