Favorite ecology and evolution quotes? (UPDATED)

What are your favorite quotes about ecology and evolution?

There’s the final paragraph of Darwin’s Origin, of course–the “tangled bank” image, “There is grandeur in this view of life”, and all that. As good as anything I’ve ever read, but perhaps a bit too lengthy to be considered a “quote”. I’m thinking more of pithy one-liners here.

I really like Francis Crick’s remark, “Evolution is cleverer than you are”. Very true, very pithy.

For a bit of discussion and context about Dobzhansky’s famous line “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” (which isn’t one of my all-time favorites for some reason), go here.

I’m having trouble coming up with good ecology quotes. Casual googling mostly turns up quotes about environmentalism. I do really like an old bumper sticker which some former grad student of Peter Morin’s stuck on the lab vehicle (to Peter’s annoyance, or so I heard). It read “Ecology is as easy as…” and then completed the sentence with the equilibrium conditions for the Lotka-Volterra competition equations.

UPDATE: The best ecology quotes seem to be those that insult ecology–and some of them are from ecologists! A commenter quotes Elton, writing in his famous Animal Ecology book, defining ecology as “The science which says what everyone knows in language that no one understands.” And this compilation of ecology quotes includes evolutionary biologist E. B. Ford’s remark, “It seems to me that ecology describes what animals do, when they are doing nothing interesting.”

I’d be a little cautious about the veracity of the quotes in this compilation (Box’s famous line about how “all models are wrong but some are useful” is misattributed, which makes one wonder about the accuracy of the other quotes). But there a number of other zingers which I hope were actually said:

Peter Grant: “Pattern, like beauty, is to some extent in the eye of the beholder.”

John Maynard Smith: “Mathematics without natural history is sterile, but natural history without mathematics is muddled.”

Peter Kareiva: “Academic ecologists are renowned for arguing amongst themselves about all the things they do not know.”

Peter Morin: “There are some ecologists who put down lab experiments because we have abstracted things too much. Our response is that if you don’t start with a simple system, you won’t understand what’s going on anyway.”

This compilation also includes some lines of ecological verse, such as this bit from Ben Jonson:

Almost all the wise world
is little else in nature
but parasites or sub-parasites
Which reminds me of this bit of doggerel from Ogden Nash:
Big things have little things
Which sit on them and bite ’em
Little things have littler things
And so on ad infinitum
So, on the basis of n=2 datapoints, we can conclude that all ecological verse concerns parasites. 😉

29 thoughts on “Favorite ecology and evolution quotes? (UPDATED)

  1. Not originally from Ecology, but certainly applicable, is George Box’s

    …all models are wrong…

    A good ecology bumper sticker could be “Honk if you love Lorenz & Tinbergen”

    • It’s funny, everybody loves the Box quote, but I don’t. I think because it smacks too much of what philosophers call “instrumentalism” for my taste (the idea that models are purely phenomenological predictive tools that don’t even approximately describe or explain reality).

      I had to think about that bumper sticker for a second before I got it! 😉

      • Ah the old, “All models are wrong, but some are useful,” chestnut.

        Allow me to add Stachowicz’s corollary: “All experiments are right, but some are useful.”

        This came from a long discussion regarding one of my chapters, and I’ve always held onto it. I like how the two work together.

      • That Stachowicz line is GREAT!

        Very relevant to the persistence of zombie ideas about the IDH. Those zombies persist in large part because lots of people mistakenly think certain experiments are useful as tests of certain zombie ideas. Those experiments are right, in the sense that any correct theory of disturbance effects needs to account for their results. But they’re not useful for the purpose for which many people insist on using them.

      • So, following on from Box, then Jarrett’s proffered corollary, where does Richard Levins’ 1966 classic

        “A mathematical model is neither an hypothesis nor a theory. Unlike the scientific hypothesis, a model is not verifiable directly by experiment.”

        leave us?

  2. I really like the Douglas Adams quote: “There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”
    It’s not attributed to ecology/evolution specifically, but to “Science” in general…

  3. Just to stir the pot I’ll add three quotes, all from Robert MacArthur. Two of them speak to science in general but were obviously intended to address ecologists.

    “To do science is to search for repeated patterns, not simply to accumulate facts.”

    “There are worse sins for a scientist than to be wrong. One is to be trivial”

    “Astronomy was a respected science long before ecology, and Copernicus and Galileo never moved a star”

    • You could’ve stirred the pot even more if you’d gone on to quote the bit which IIRC follows your first quote in Geographical Ecology: “This book is for those who want to do science.” 😉

      It’s actually good timing for you to bring that up that first quote, because there’ve been some exchanges on this and other ecology blogs recently regarding the etiquette of scientific communication. Exactly how strongly is it acceptable, or advisable, to condemn claims with which one disagrees, and in what circumstances? I note this simply because I don’t think anyone involved in these exchanges has ever gone so far as to accuse their opponents of *not doing science*! Which is exactly what the great Robert MacArthur did. In print rather than on a blog. In 1972. Now of course, MacArthur’s quote wasn’t directed at anyone in particular, which might soften the blow a bit. But I’ll bet there were plenty of readers at the time who interpreted themselves as among those being targeted by MacArthur’s jibe, and who didn’t like it.

      Of the three, I like the second one best, only because I agree with it the most (which raises the question: can you really like a quote you don’t totally agree with?) Searching for repeated patterns is one way to do science, but far from the only way (as indeed, the example of much of MacArthur’s own science shows). And the line about astronomy just doesn’t resonate with me only because I don’t really know how astronomy is done in any detail. Whenever someone compares ecology, or some subfield of it, to astronomy, I always get the feeling that they’re only trying to show that an experiment-free science is possible. Which is fine, as far as it goes. But they never go on to explain *how* it’s possible. What is it about astronomy that allows it to be a successful-yet-experiment-free science? And does ecology, or whatever subfield of ecology you care about, have those features? After all, there are other sciences in which it’s pretty much *impossible* to make progress without experiments (drug development in medicine is one example that comes to mind). Why are those fields totally unlike astronomy? And is ecology more like astronomy, or more like those “experiment-dependent” fields?

    • You’ve reminded me of the taxonomist’s equivalent: “Nothing is more dangerous than an ecologist with a dichotomous key.”

  4. Not strictly an “ecology or evolution quote”, but I really like it anyway, Haldane’s probably apocryphal “… the Creator, if he exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

    Alternatively, there is this one (atributed to Charles O. Whitman):
    “Theory without fact is fantasy, but facts without theory is chaos.” that is pretty neat.

  5. The evolutionary play occurs in the ecological theatre. (paraphrased)
    Not sure who said it, probably MacArthur

    When you try to study something in isolation, you find it hooked to everything else.
    John Muir

    • I think the line about the evolutionary play and the ecological theatre is Hutchinson (?) Out of fashion these days, as it’s been taken to suggest a separation of timescales between ecology and evolution that is increasingly doubted.

  6. There’s always “It’s not nice to fool mother nature”. I mean, as margarine commercials go, you have to admit, that’s reasonably profound, even if it falls under the category of moral judments.

    • Like I said in the post, I was trying to stay away from environmentalist quotes. But now that you’ve opened the door (albeit in a rather, um, unexpected way), I’m sure that people will now be quoting the Lorax and Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner and… 😉

      • We could keep it in a more ecological context if we just rephrased it slightly: “It’s not nice to be fooled by mother nature” or maybe “it’s not nice to be a fool around mother nature”. Surely those must be in a textbook somewhere.

  7. Are ecologists just not given to producing pithy quotes? I think we need an ecologist to make a quote like what James Maxwell supposedly said to his date about being the only one who knew what light was (I know that’s a rough paraphrase, but I don’t even remember where I read the story).

    • The trouble is that most things ecologists know about, other people do too. No ecologist can say to his date, “I’m the only one who really knows what plants are.”

      There’s a similar, probably apocryphal, story about Einstein. A reporter asked him if it was true that only three people in the world really understood general relativity. Einstein is said to have replied, “Who are the other two?”

  8. How about Elton’s statement about ecology: “The science which says what everyone knows in language that no one understands”. Though made in 1927, there is at least a kernel of truth to that in describing contemporary ecology.

      • I got that quote from Bob Peters’ classic “A Critique for Ecology”. It is on page 40 of my edition of the book, and is attributed to Elton’s 1927 book “Animal Ecology” published by Sedgewick & Jakson, London.

      • I think that wins the thread! Remarkable for Elton to say that in a text that today we think of as having defined or codified ecology.

  9. How about this: “Ecology is the science in which a spade is called a geotome.” Origin is in the distant past and unknown to me, but I heard it in the 1950s.

  10. Pingback: Friday links: the history of “Big Data” in ecology, inside an NSF panel, funny Fake Science, and more | Dynamic Ecology

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.