Charles Elton on A. J. Lotka

FODE* and my former labmate Hank Stevens recently pointed me to Charles Elton’s 1935 review of A. J. Lotka’s Théorie analytique des associations biologiques. Part 1: Principes. The review includes Elton’s famous dissing of Lotka’s ability to explain himself to non-mathematicians:

Like most mathematicians, he takes the hopeful biologist to the edge of a pond, points out that a good swim will help his work, and then pushes him in and leaves him to drown.

If that’s all you knew about the review (and it was all I knew, until Hank sent me the full copy), you could be forgiven for assuming that Elton questioned the relevance of mathematics to the practical business of real world ecology. You’d be wrong. Here are some other passages:

Behind these ordinary ecological investigations, concerned with organisation of observers, census techniques, and all the paraphernalia of field surveys and the laboratory and museum activities that go with them, lies this basic work upon populations treated by Lotka. He seeks to create a system of mathematical formulae which will guide the ecologist in his population studies.


The importance of the method is this: if we know certain variables, mostly desired by ecologists and in some cases already determined by them, we can predict certain results which would not normally be predictable or even expected by ecologists. The stage of verification of these mathematical predictions has hardly begun; but their importance cannot be under-estimated, and we look forward to seeing the further volumes of Lotka’s studies.

Read the whole thing. It’s a fascinating snapshot of the early state of animal population ecology from the man who almost single-handedly defined and codified the field. It’s also a clear statement of the importance of theory to empirical investigations. I especially like the bit about predicting results which would “not normally be predictable or even expected by ecologists”; one of the most important roles of theory is as a corrective to our pre-theoretical intuitions. Elton’s views on the importance of theory were very much in line with those of Gause and other early workers like Volterra, Nicholson, and Bailey. Many ecologists these days, including me, place strong emphasis on the importance and power of tight, rigorous links between theory and data. The founders of population ecology were pretty much totally modern in this respect, and were held back only by data availability, lack of computing power, and limited statistical theory.

*Friend of Dynamic Ecology

5 thoughts on “Charles Elton on A. J. Lotka

  1. Pingback: Recommended reading list | Just Simple Enough: The Art of Mathematical Modelling

  2. Nice to have the full context of that infamous quote, but I think Elton did some backsliding in his relationship with theory later on. I love the eminent mathematical biologist Jim Murray’s description of meeting Elton at a party in the 70s:

    “When I expressed an interest in animal ecology and mentioned his seminal work on the data from the Hudson Bay Company he started to talk enthusiastically about oscillatory behavior in populations. When I said I was a mathematician working in biology there was a notable cooling of his enthusiasm and he said, ‘Oh, you’re one of them’ and added, ‘I thought you were somebody else.'”

    (Mathematical Biology I, 3rd edition, p. 36)

    Maybe Elton was just worried that Murray would push him into the pool! 🙂 🙂

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