Interview with Gordon Orians, June 4, 2013

Collection: Ecological Society of America Oral History Collection

Dublin Core


Gordon Orians was the president of the Ecological Society of America from 1995-1996. He was also a professor at the University of Washington. In this interview, he discusses his work with the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Washington and the National Academy of Sciences. He also talks about major questions in ecology including population regulation, species richness in communities, and energy flows.

Interview Notes

Orians began bird watching when he was 7 years old and started keeping field notes at age 9. He went to the University of Wisconsin and majored in zoology, advised by John Emlen and John Curtis who made plan ecology very interesting. Orians got a Fullbright Fellowship at the University of Oxford with David Lack, a good friend of Emlen, for graduate school. He said Lack had the most important influence on his career. In undergrad, Orians had studied hawks and wrote a manuscript, of which Lack was quite critical of, leading Orians to think more critically, using the hypthetico-deductive approach. 

Lack also taught Orians about proximate and ultimate factors affecting processes and how important it is to know which question is being asked. Lack was far more important than any subsequent advisors that he had. Gordon later received his Ph.D. at California.

What are his most important contributions? 

Behavioral ecology from an evolutionary perspective. Lack made ecology an evolutionary science, which Gordon pursued.

Philosophy of graduate education

The most important contributions came from students who asked the best questions when he taught. And how did those questions change over time? That art of asking questions - being good at that is more important than how much someone knows.

Students often did their research on topics that were not the central theme of his grants, so they had to develop their research independently.

Importance of the Institute of Environmental Studies

The IES was the University of Washington's response to Earth Day, which generated a lot of interest and which Gordon helped found and eventually was director for a long time. Gordon describes the history of IES and how it is multidisciplinary. Though it has since been terminated by the university and replaced by a new initiative. He also advised the state as a member of a state legislative committee, and also was on an advisory committee for EPA. Often the agencies lacked expertise. It was important for them to have ecologists, to prevent them from “garbling” the application of ecology.

At that time it was hard to find academic positions for all graduates, so it was good to get them involved with the agencies, and become familiar with the science-policy interface. Courses were taught on that subject and are still taught there today.

While planning Washington’s institute, Gordon and others visited other institutes, and he noted considerable variation, due to their local situation. There was no standard to follow in developing an institute on the environment. At Washington, the institute was small, with limited budget. Later biogeochemistry became a focal point, though that was not Gordon’s expertise, nor were there any courses on the subject. So they developed a course on the subject and that focus was used for graduate student recruitment. 

Students became focused on getting an academic job because they were surrounded by academics, but Gordon tried to broaden perspectives, showing that other career paths were just as good. 


Orians got involved early on in writing a general biology textbook, because the existing ones were so filled with facts, which he didn’t like. He wanted a book with more on the process of science, and he felt strongly about that. He wrote his first biology textbook all by himself, “which was a colossal failure;” too radical a departure from tradition. Subsequent textbooks that he co-authored were “more standard.”

National Academy Reports

He reviews a little of NAS history, and then describes the National Research Council, which is the working arm of the NAS. He worked as committee chair on a report on oil and gas development in Alaska. These studies are important to provide a means of getting scientists involved, not just politicians or policy makers. Biases are identified; balance is sought, to achieve a balance of biases, if there is a bias. No one is paid for this work. The effectiveness of the reports varies. Sometimes politicians prevail. NAS/NRC is the only choice for the highest of objectivity. The reports narrowed the scope of topics over which disagreement was still reasonable. OK to leave some places alone, which is a legitimate point. Rarely do you totally resolve a problem with such reports, but bounds are placed on the debate.

What have been the important questions in ecology that continue today?

Charles Elton’s book was really good, framing good questions, at least for animal ecology. Population regulation? Density dependent/density independence – a big topic when he was a grad student, but not so much now. Many factors are involved; a complex topic. Topics of species richness and community. Behavior in relation to communitycharacteristics. And energy flow.

Sometimes ecological questions are asked that can’t be answered, and that’s ok. It’s intrinsic to the nature of ecology, and we’ve come to realize that.

How has your thinking changed over the years?

Orians took his first ecology course at Wisconsin. Andrewarths and Birch worked in Australia, which affected what they wrote about, and he describes how. At that time, there was not much communication between the various sub-disciplines of ecology. Now, they tend to work together more often.

He mentions the behavioral basis for why species diversity might decline on small islands (fragmented habitat) and speaks about the importance of natural history information.

When he went to college, he carried a slide rule; now it’s computers. Still have to think hard, even though we have large data sets. Crap in; crap out.

How has ESA changed?

You get involved because it’s part of your profession. Communication at meetings and through the journals is valuable. Now meetings are much bigger, more complex, and for him, less interesting. He enjoyed the NAS committees because they were small. He often didn’t go to ESA meetings.

Now, societies have less revenue coming from journals. Not sure how this will play out. He bets a lot of societies won’t survive. Blogs may become more important, and he doesn't know about their futures.

Society sections and chapters may compensate for some of his conserns.





Oral History Item Type Metadata


60 minutes


Gordon Orians and Douglas Sprugel, “Interview with Gordon Orians, June 4, 2013,” UGA Special Collections Libraries Oral Histories, accessed June 8, 2023,