For a while now Meg, Brian, and I have been toying with doing a series of posts on “the culture of ecology”. This was my idea originally, but it was a pretty vague idea, and so far we haven’t been able to firm it up. But the current emptiness of our queue of forthcoming posts has motivated me to just throw out the few underdeveloped ideas I have. Hopefully this will spark some comments that will then lead to good discussion, and perhaps better posts in future.
So I guess the first question to ask is, is there a “culture of ecology”, as distinct from, say, the broader culture of “biology” or “academia”?* Are there modes of thought or behavior that are common and distinctive enough among ecologists to be considered characteristic of ecologists? If so, what are they? How about dressing casually? (I’ve often joked that ecologists dress like they might have to go out into the field at any moment) Or drinking non-cheap beer? Or beards on men? Or more substantively, how about expecting our graduate students to develop their own projects (that’s very much not the expectation in, say, molecular biology)? How about expecting that people do field work? I’m sure y’all can think of many other candidates.
Of course, I’m sure you immediately thought of exceptions to the generalizations about “ecology culture” that I just suggested. Ecologists who dress sharp, who don’t drink beer, who don’t do field work, etc. Which is kind of why I wanted to post on this. Often, what’s most interesting about a dominant “culture” are the exceptions to it, and how the dominant culture develops and gets maintained in the face of those exceptions. So, insofar as there is a “culture of ecology”, is there some aspect of it that you don’t conform to? That you perhaps even dislike? Have you ever felt explicit or implicit pressure to conform to the prevailing ecological culture? Or perhaps you couldn’t conform, say because of your gender, appearance, or ethnic background?
I can think of times when I’ve tried to conform to, and even propagate, existing “cultural norms” in ecology. And I can think of times when I’ve ignored, or even tried to change, the prevailing culture. In no particular order:
- I’ve talked in the past about how hard I’ve had to work justifying my choice of a lab-based study system. And while all the objections I’ve had to answer look like substantive objections, frankly I think they’re all ultimately just post hoc rationalizations for the feeling of many ecologists that, if it doesn’t involve going outdoors and getting muddy, it can’t possibly be real ecology.
- There’s a lot of debate right now about whether scientists ought to publish everything in author pays open access journals. And all sides have good substantive reasons for their positions. My own contribution has been to argue for more or less the traditional way of doing things. But honestly, I think a lot of that debate isn’t driven by substantive considerations. Ultimately, I think a lot of it comes down a generational, “cultural” thing. People roughly my age and above are used to doing things the way they were done before online publishing existed, and would like to keep doing things that way whether or not it makes sense. Conversely, people more than a few years younger than me are used to everything being free on the internet and located via Google searches, and would like scientific publishing to work that way whether or not it makes sense.
- Most of the advice posts I’ve done basically advise people to do things the way they’ve long been done in academic ecology. And while there often are substantive, “culture-independent” reasons for following my advice, those aren’t the only reasons for following my advice. Often, it’s also a good idea to follow my advice because doing otherwise would make you stick out like a sore thumb in the prevailing culture of academic ecology. Which of course tends to propagate the prevailing culture, for better or worse.
- I drink non-cheap beer, although I didn’t used to drink beer at all, so that’s an aspect of ecology culture that I’ve come to conform to over time. On the other hand, I don’t have a beard, never have, and never will. 😉
- And of course, there’s not much of a culture of blogging in ecology the way there is in, say, economics. But I’m trying to change that. 😉
Is the culture of ecology changing? A little while back, I poked fun at Lindenmayer and Likens’ suggestion that ecology is losing its “culture” of place-based natural history in favor of mathematics and meta-analysis (and see The EEB and Flow for less snarky pushback against L&L). But the culture of ecology could be changing in other ways. For instance, are we becoming more collaborative? (The average number of authors/paper certainly has gone up over the last several decades…) Is our culture changing as the proportion of female ecologists slowly increases?
Are some of the apparently trivial aspects of the “culture of ecology” actually more important than we realize? For instance, if most ecologists like drinking beer, people who don’t drink alcohol are maybe going to miss out on some interactions they otherwise might have had, interactions that might have, say, led to collaborations. (although I’ll note that, before I started drinking beer, I used to just go to bars with people and order sodas; it was fine) At some level, I think this sort of thing is just inevitable, and so I’m not sure it’s even a problem. Statistically, any group of people is going to include a majority who like certain things and a minority who don’t (probably different majorities for different things). On the other hand, it’s probably easy for me to say that, since in a lot of ways, I’m either part of the majority “culture” of ecology, or secure enough in my position not to need to worry about whether I’m in the majority culture or not.
I also think there are subcultures of ecology, and that they shape the direction of the field. For instance, certain types of people really like being out in wild nature, while other types of people really like doing math, while others like writing code, etc. I think that’s ultimately why most people choose the questions they do, and the research approach they use to address those questions. For instance, I suspect that the sort of person who’s keen to document and understand large scale patterns in ecology probably tends not to be the kind of person who also wants to run, or even cares that much about, small scale field experiments (There are obvious exceptions, of course, like Jim Brown and many of his descendants.) And conversely, someone like me, who just likes asking precise questions and getting precise answers, and who is not a great programmer, is not going to be inclined to do many comparative analyses that would require efficient manipulation of massive datasets, efficient coding of hierarchical Bayesian models, and puzzling over the interpretation of patterns that might have several non-mutually-exclusive explanations. (Again, there are obvious exceptions) All that is mostly fine, but it can lead to problems when people go beyond just doing what they like and not doing what they don’t like, and cross over into ignoring or devaluing what they don’t like. For instance, I’ve talked in the past about how too many macroecologists working on local-regional richness relationships have ignored directly-relevant results of small scale field experiments on whether local communities are open to colonization. And I’ve written a lot on this blog about how theoreticians and empiricists often talk past or fail to appreciate each other (see here, here, and here). And I’ve speculated on whether our increasingly collaborative culture devalues introverts or selects for people who are too nice and too reluctant to criticize each other.
Like I said, some fairly undeveloped remarks here. Hopefully commenters can suggest more concrete lines of thought. I’m especially curious to hear from people who came to ecology late, from a different “culture” (hi, Brian), or who for whatever reason dislike or feel marginalized by some aspect of what they see as the prevailing “culture” in ecology.
*Not that “culture of academia” wouldn’t be worth posting on. Indeed, The EEB and Flow just put up a good post on this.