The Old Man and the Sea

The other day I read a very nice review by Aaron Ellison of Peter Petraitis’ new book on Multiple Stable States in Natural Ecosystems. Peter is a good friend, so I was happy to see his book get a nice plug. This book incorporates decades of thinking on Peter’s part and anybody interested in community ecology should give it a read. I feel a little guilty referring to Peter in the title of this post as an “Old Man” because he is far from that. Technically, he’s retiring, but he still spends his winter clamoring around icy rocks in the intertidal of the Gulf of Maine. Rather, the title means that there’s something I can learn from somebody who has been around longer than I have.

As Aaron points out in his review, Peter’s book nicely fits together theoretical and empirical ecology, something that I wished happened more often. Of course we’re all becoming more and more specialized, but regardless of speciality, I think there’s always a place for both theory and experiments in answering any question.

Some naturalists see theory as too abstract to be of interest, and often it is. But theory, when done right, should be broadly applicable to many systems and should provide testable hypotheses. In my view, theory should be used to formalize our thinking about a particular system, and then we should go out into nature to see if that thinking pans out in nature. In that broad sense, theory need not mean a set of mathematical equations, although they don’t hurt. This need not be a one-way street between theory and nature. Natural history and field observations should be used to initiate a theoretical approach, and experiments should inform new theory in a feedback cycle.

Both Aaron’s review and Peter’s book lament the lack of linkage between theoretical and empirical ecology, or even between different subfields of ecology. This is evident at many universities. Here at CSUN, the ecologists are split between one group (Ecology & Evolution) and another (Marine Biology).  We’re split based on the systems in which we work, rather than the questions we ask. Many other universities are similarly split between Plant Biology and Zoology, where one might find their closest intellectual colleague in a different department.

These types of splits are often associated with another distinction between biologists that I don’t like: those that are system-oriented versus those that are question-oriented. Ask most ecologists why they are interested in their field of research, and you’ll quickly find that they are one or the other. Either they’re interested in Tardigrades because they’re the coolest thing on Earth, or they’re interested in them because they live in moss patches that are conducive to conducting experiments testing metacommunity theory. I’ll argue that either approach on it’s own is wrong. If you’re a theoretical biologist, and you don’t get out and work and touch and observe real organisms sometimes, you’re less likely to create a useful model. Likewise, if you’re just really interested in turtles, but you can’t place your research in some broader context and make it interesting to somebody who doesn’t care about turtle, then nobody’s going to read your paper.

A couple of years ago, Pablo Mungia gave a talk at the Benthic Ecology meeting about how papers published in marine biology journals tended to mention their study organism right away, whereas marine-based papers published in general ecology journals tended to mention their study organism much later in the Introduction. Maybe we should all pay attention to this sort of thing during talks at ESA this summer. How many theoretical talks begin with pictures of real organisms? And how many experimental talks begin with a broad theoretical background? I think we’d all benefit from following the example of ecologists like Aaron and Peter, who are both really great naturalists, but who also understand where there work fits in a broader context model of nature.

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