Dr. David W. Tonkyn

Population ecology

Clemson University

Ecology is the study of the relationships between organisms and their biotic and abiotic environments. The course covers physiological, population, and community ecology, with applications of each to human concerns.  I consider all of biology to be the study of evolutionary solutions to ecological problems, of homeostasis, growth, reproduction, feeding, etc.  For example, we can study the human immune system from the perspectives of genetics, cell biology or physiology, but these just tell us the proximate mechanisms for how it works. If we ask, instead, why is it there, then the answer is ecological, to protect us from the vast array of parastic organisms around us.  This ecological perspective suggests that all organisms should have analogues to our immune system and, indeed, they do.


I have several recurrent themes.  First, humans are a product of nature, and many of our characteristics can be understood as evolutionary solutions to the evolutionary problems our ancestors faced.  Second, we have not yet escaped our origins or dependence on nature.





My teaching philosophy

Ecology - Biol 4410/6410

My teaching philosophy was summarized by Nobel-Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynmann in an autobiographical article, "What is science" in Physics Teacher 7 (6): 313-320.  His father was not well-educated but very thoughtful and would teach him about things such as birds. 


The next day, Monday, we were playing in the fields and this boy said to me, "See that bird standing on the stump there? What's the name of it?" I said, "I haven't got the slightest idea.“ He said, 'It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn't teach you much about science.“ I smiled to myself, because my father had already taught me that the name doesn't tell me anything about the bird. He taught me "See that bird? It's a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it's called a halsenflugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird--you only know something about people; what they call that bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way," and so forth. ....There is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on.”


In defiance of some modern biology instruction, I don't insist that students learn the names of things or their parts.  They can now find these details on their cell phone in seconds.  Instead, I focus on general principles that can't simply be looked up or memorized.