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Shaping Ecology: The Life of Arthur Tansley Paperback – May 21 2012
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“In conclusion, this book is well written and it is easy to locate specific information on Tansley and the broader contexts of his work throughout the book.” (The British Journal for the History of Science, 1 June 2014)
“Ayres’s book shows how one man was able to create whole climates of opinion as well as a new discipline; it is warmly recommended.” (Archives of Natural history, 1 August 2013)
“Despite hints of Tansley’s personal complexity, we are left with an appreciation of his remarkable professional legacy that continues to foster scientific alliances and conservation of nature. ” (Ecology, 1 April 2013)
“To all of us who cherish such wild places in modern Britain, as this book reveals, we owe Tansley a great debt.” (The Biologist, 1 June 2013)
“A valuable acquisition for institutions with programs in ecology, botany, environmental sciences, or history of science. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Academic and general readers, all levels.” (Choice, 1 March 2013)
“It is directed at ecologists, but it is a straightforward biography and, as such, deserves to be widely read.” (Journal of Insect Conservervation, 8 July 2012)
From the Back Cover
Arthur Tansley turned the old plant geography into the new science of ecology, teaching botanists to look at vegetation, rather than individual plant species. He recognised that vegetation is continually changing and how, especially in the British islands, it is influenced by man's activities. Safeguarding wild places from the continuing pressures of agriculture and industry would demand, he argued, not sterile preservation but active conservation within nature reserves, places where the principles of ecology could be applied to the scientific management of plants and animals.
Author of a best-selling book on psychology, and a respected philosopher, Tansley was no mere academic. He used his authority and political skills to achieve practical results, such as the foundation of the Nature Conservancy, of which he was the first Chairman. In the ecological principles he laid out, most notably the ecosystem, he left an invaluable legacy for ecologists and conservationists worldwide.See all Product Description
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
I found this to be a lively and interesting biography as Tansley rose to the highest peaks of British ecology. At that point, unfortunately, the story began to drag. Tansley was involved in too many projects, with too many people. The story involves a lot of committees, conferences, resolutions, and other administrative tasks. It was all important, and central to Tansley's life, but it made me glad to get to the end. Alas.
Basically a sponsored volume, it is co published by the British Ecological Society and the academic journal, the New Phytologist, it is almost a self parody of the genre. There is much quoting of mission statements, detailed chronolgies of the founding of organizations, and endless discussions of the formation and reports of endless, mostly forgotten study committees, and it quotes formal encomiums and almost utterly useless verbiage of of official statements and after dinner speeches at length. It proclaims itself a critical biography, while finding its subjects chief faults to be prickliness and lack of familiarity with failure. If you have ever read an official departmental history or the book a century old corporation issues about its founding, you will know what reading this book is like.
Tansley is a fascinating figure, a product of the incredible efflorescence of Victorian self improvement, his was father a self educated, if very wealthy tradesman, and associate of both John Lubbock and Ruskin, and he himself was a schoolfriend of Bertrand Russell. His wife's wedding party was a constellation in itself. Not only did he coordinate the creation of an entire scientific discipline, ecology, he also was one of the very first British members of the International Psychoanalytic Association, and was analyzed, unsuccessfully, by Freud himself. He coined the term "ecosystem" and much of the modern language of ecology. In other words he was a fascinating man, and the subject of a terribly dull book.
As an example, the author, Peter Ayres, repeatedly refers to an extramarital affair, even quoting a portion of Taney's diary about his agony in ending it, and yet never actually discusses it, much later in a tedious and repetitious section on domestic routines it is casually mentioned that he announced the existence of this affair to his entire family during dinner, and that this was traumatic. That is the sum total of the discussion.
As to the scientific portions, they are written on a middling level, as is typical of much of environmental history. Actual knowledge of the topic by the reader is much rewarded, but it must appear quite opaque to the uninitiated, but even these sections are rather brief, and a times seem utterly swamped in endless lists of names, all of them actually important in their fields, but still... And as referred to earlier, endless discussions of bureaucratic maneuvers, the creation of societies, and wangling over jobs. All of this should be horrifyingly familiar to anyone in academia or the administrative ends of non profits.
So who is this book actually for. Who could possibly want to read every turgid word? Other than connoisseurs of organizational minutiae, of course. Well it will be very useful to those interested in the British side of the origin of Ecology as a discipline, and to environmental historians, and those curious about the personnel involved in founding nature reserves in the UK. It also may have some interest for those dedicated experts on Freudiana have run across Tansley in their reading, and wonder who exactly he was.
I give it four stars for these parties since it will serve their needs, for anyone else, avoid it.
Ayers' book is extensively annotated, and I found the inclusion of the "notes" at the end of each chapter, rather than in a composite section at the conclusion, extremely helpful. Regretfully, botany and ecology are not my fields, and therefore I found the extensive discussion of various projects and programs with which Tansley was involved more detailed than I (and therefore, perhaps, other readers similarly lacking expertise) could really enjoy. As I've previously remarked in various reviews, I am drawn to biographies and memoirs, as well as to scientifically-oriented writing, which was why I was intrigued by this title, but the narrative rather missed the mark for me.
This is indeed a contemporary book in a number of ways. Arthur Tansley's life and work spanned the decades of huge advancement in scientific research, as well as the politically tumultuous years surrounding both WWI and WWII. He was friends with many of the intellectual luminaries of that era, including Freud and Bertrand Russell, just to mention two. The introduction of Tansley's friendships with such individuals gives Ayers' work considerable depth and perspective. And of course the underlying theme, what really drew my interest in the first place, is the emphasis that Tansley was an extremely vital player in the development of the science of ecology, and the understanding of the concept of ecosystem. A person who played such a pivotal role in a field of investigation upon which the future survival of life on the planet may well hinge does indeed deserve wider recognition than he has received so far. Although I am not sure that Peter Ayers' book can fully accomplish this, perhaps it represents an important step along the road.
I found it also interesting that he was a friend of Bertrand Russell in school. It is a shame they broke up over the war for so long but considering their dispositions it makes sense. It always amazes me how small the company was that was the British Academic community during this time. It seems everyone that turned out to be famous was connected in some way with everyone else. Tansley was a "Queer mixture of an idealist and a materialist" - I suppose that would be just right for a botanist. Funny way to get to know the Chicks right after the school merged. Sorry, but that clearly seems to have been set up to be interesting. The history of the man dovetails with the history of the increased development of botany as a science and the close connection it had with the development of preserving nature and ecology. This is a very interesting biography that describes an interesting, long, and successful life.
The book is written on an academic level and won't be dull for those who read on that level. (And of course the reverse...general readers may well find this dull and tedious to read)
One of my fantasy lives would be that of a botanist or floraculturist since my parents owned a nursery in California. As a growing child, I practically hated the business, and now as an old man have regrets that I didn't try harder to develop an interest in plants and their culture. For that reason, I really reveled in this book, imagining myself to have lived Arthur Tansley's type of life, even to being a professor at a leading college.
So, I do emphasize that this book is a treasure for those immersed in ecology, botany, or floriculture. If you're not all that interested in such, don't read this and get bored, then give me a negative vote for giving this five stars. I think this is a great book for the right reader.
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