the often omitted etymology of ecological

adjective : pertaining to the relationships between organisms, and between organisms and their environments.

Ecological frequently connotes harmony, implying beautiful networks of frequently mutualistic relationships. Ecologically friendly. Ecological design. Ecological literacy. Ecological knowledge. Traditional ecological knowledge. An ecological civilization. For systems thinking enthusiasts, type one Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS 1), in particular. I tend to use it in this popular sense. However, the word historically included mighty strife, especially between humans. I find its contradictory etymology worth visiting, for using the word and participating in those implied networks today. Knowledge about the root and coinage can reinforce the meaning and turn "ecological" into a reminder.


Oíkos, ancient Greek for house or family, serves as the root word of ecology and economy, but it might not denote “home” in the convivial way that many contemporary people assume. When and where oíkos originated, 5th century BC Athens, the word could variously refer to the members of a family, their house, their farm, and all the humans the family had enslaved. It regularly encompassed parasitic to predatory relationships between humans: chattel slavery and domination of men over women.

Elites of that time considered oíkoi the basic political and economic units of Athens, the first democracy in Europe. The rules of that system barred slaves and women from participating in politics and, with the exception of prostitutes, from holding significant property (Cox 2014). Some elites expressed difficulty imagining a world without slavery; according to Aristotle, only a society where tools could operate themselves could function without slaves (4th century BCE). While Aristotle also espoused racism, skin color did not factor heavily into enslavement. That pattern would coalesce later and elsewhere (Painter 2010).

In Byzantine era Greece, after Aristotle, between the fifth to the fifteenth centuries AD, serfdom largely replaced slavery as a mode of labor in the region. Slavery remained legal but a slightly more consensual relationship overtook it (Lenski 2021). Greek speakers imported a new word for house and home—σπίτι (spíti), from Latin hospitium—during this time. All the while, ancient Athenian Greek, Attic, evolved as a language into Demotiki and Standard Modern Greek (Encyclopedia Britannica). Users of Standard Modern Greek rarely refer to a home or house as oíkos—“rarely” as recorded on Google Translate and the language site Word Hippo. They use σπίτι. Greek capitalism emerged in the late eighteenth century. Greek women cast their first votes in 1952.

Attic remained popular internationally among centuries of scholars interested in ancient Greek art and science. Some people still draw from Attic to develop new terminology.

Oíkos usually means home in Attic. Home connoted something less egalitarian in ancient Athens than it does in globalized discourse today.


Greek’s oikonomia became Latin’s oeconomia and, by the 1530s, English’s economy, all meaning “household management.” Economy as the management of a nation emerged in the 1650s. German biologist Ernst Haeckel drew from home and economy when he coined and promoted ecology, oecologie, in the 19th century. He called for studying “the place each organism takes in the household of nature, in the economy of all nature” (Haeckel 1866, quoted in Egerton 2013).

Haeckel, who might have done more than anyone to popularize the theory of evolution during Charles Darwin’s life, certainly amplified disharmony in the household of humans.

As a “scientific” racist and ableist, he believed that empirical evidence proved or would prove that certain groups of Europeans embodied better survival adaptations than any other populations. In his mind, supposed maladaptations doomed groups such as some black and indigenous peoples, as well as some people with different abilities, to extinction. Darwin did not share this view. Arguably, Haeckel diverged from Darwinian frameworks in jumping to those racist assumptions without data: one of Haeckel's close students, Nikolai Miklucho-Maclay, used the same methodology and became an anti-racist anthropologist (Levit & Hossfeld 2020).

Instead of encouraging anti-racism, Haeckel co-founded the Monist Society, a group which attracted thousands of members organized around Social Darwinism, the now-debunked “survival of the fittest” rationalization of imperialism and colonialism (Gasman 1998). Haeckel lived and worked during Europe's sudden and atrocious colonization of Africa. The following remains under some debate but several historians, including the prominent evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, conclude that Haeckel’s career contributed to Nazi ideology (Gould 2002).

Haeckel clearly helped popularize thinking that many governments operationalized into eugenicist policies such as anti-miscegenation laws and forced sterilizations, imposed on people of color and people with disabilities (Jackson & Weidman 2006). A scientist writing in the Ecological Society of America’s 2013 Bulletin concluded that ecologists today might recognize Haeckel as a founder in a similar way to how supporters of US democracy recognize Thomas Jefferson: as an early organizer who profoundly violated the group's contemporary core ethos (Egerton).

“Scientific” racist postulates and their ilk have since been proven empirically false; meanwhile, tremendous work remains to correct for harms made under their assumptions worldwide, including and beyond Haeckel’s direct network of influence.


Haeckel’s word “ecological,” with all its heavy etymology, might serve as a reminder of the work needed to make harmony in this cosmic abode. Settlers and colonizers might especially remember their responsibilities during discussions about “traditional ecological knowledge,” a phrase that refers to the ways of knowing and being of indigenous peoples. Slavers and supremacists inflicted and inflict vast ecological and economic damage which (unlike the victims’ genetic inheritances) often hampers communities’ thriving to this day. Present remedies include versions of truth and reconciliation councils, and reparations. The Earth Charter, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and the United Nations Declarations on Universal Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples' Rights provide guiding foundations. This all contributes to an ecological civilization in the present, typical sense of those words.

Aristotle. Politics. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed October 25, 2022.
Cox, Cheryl Anne. 2014. Household Interests: Property, Marriage Strategies, and Family Dynamics in Ancient Athens. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Egerton, Frank N. 2013. “History of Ecological Sciences, Part 47: Ernst Haeckel’s Ecology.” Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 94 (3): 222–44.
Gasman, Daniel. 1998. Haeckel’s Monism and the Birth of Fascist Ideology. Studies in Modern European History, v. 33. New York: P. Lang.
Gould, Stephen Jay. 2002. Ontogeny and Phylogeny. 16. print. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press.
“Greek Language - Linguistic Characteristics Britannica.” n.d. Accessed October 23, 2022.
Jackson, John P., and Nadine M. Weidman. 2006. Race, Racism, and Science: Social Impact and Interaction. 1. publ. in paperback. Science and Society Series. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Lenski, Noel. 2021. “Slavery in the Byzantine Empire.” In The Cambridge World History of Slavery, edited by Craig Perry, David Eltis, Stanley L. Engerman, and David Richardson, 1st ed., 453–81. Cambridge University Press.
Painter, Nell Irvin. 2010. The History of White People. New York: W.W. Norton.

In addition to visiting the etymology, I propose a new adverb phrase that encompasses many of ecological’s typical connotations: al amor de la vida.