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Mongolian journal of Biological sciences

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Why Do You Need Mathematics to Learn Ecology?

Bazartseren Boldgiv


John Maynard Smith, one of the most influential evolutionary biologists of our time, once said “If you can’t stand algebra, then stay away from evolutionary biology.” A similar phrase can be said about ecology: “if you can’t stand mathematics, then stay away from ecology.” At the outset I should say that I am not trying to discourage readers who have not had an opportunity to have and use the great tool of mathematics, but my intention is to help young ecologists to develop into competent professionals from the beginning by emphasizing its importance. After I started this short note, incidentally, the Science published a special issue on Mathematics in Biology on February 6, 2004. In this issue, Sir Robert M. May (2004) offers his overview of uses and abuses of mathematics in biology; whereas Bialek and Botstein (2004) propose ways to improve quantitative thinking of future biologists by designing a unified introductory science curriculum in colleges. The issue of improving quantitative background of biologists is very important nowadays as the science of biology has been transforming not only with advances in biological understanding, but also with dramatic advances in experimental techniques and computational analyses (Bialek & Botstein, 2004). Application of quantitative thinking in biology dates back to the Middle Ages and earlier. Sir William Petty in about 1300 composed a table “shewing (showing) that the People might have doubled in the several ages of the World”, starting with eight people one year after the great Flood, which was quite an accurate calculation. Leonardo of Pisa, a.k.a. Fibonacci, born in Italy, derived in early 1200s one of the first mathematical models for population growth, in this case for a closed population of rabbits (Britton, 2002). Galileo, arguably the founder of modern science, apparently realized that “the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics” (Bialek & Botstein, 2004). Unfortunately, in about 400 years of modern science, biology has mostly been left out of
mathematical culture, whereas physics and engineering marched together with it.


Department of Ecology, Faculty of Biology, National University of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar 210646, Mongolia Present address: Department of Biology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104-4207