Building on an old post: am I alone in feeling like ecology needs a new textbook?
I emphasize that I’m thinking of a textbook for an undergraduate general ecology course. Not a modeling course, so books like Gotelli, Case, and Stevens are out. Not a course specific to aquatic, terrestrial, or marine systems, or to plants, animals, or microbes. Not a course on some specific subfield like community ecology, so books like Morin and Mittelbach are out. And not a graduate seminar, so books like Verhoef and Morin are out. I emphasize this because the discussion on the previous post quickly veered off into discussion of all sorts of textbooks. Which was fine, but here I want to focus specifically on general ecology textbooks.
The leading textbooks in the field, at least to my mind, are Ricklefs (now Ricklefs and Miller), and Begon, Harper, Townsend (now Begon, Townsend, Harper). Both were first published years before I started grad school. While they’ve subsequently been updated, every textbook inevitably retains much of the “feel”, content, and structure of the first edition. The same is true for competing textbooks, like Krebs, Smith and Smith, and Chapman and Reiss.
In raising the question of whether we need a new ecology textbook, I don’t mean any criticism of existing textbooks. Writing a good textbook is really difficult, and I think several of the books mentioned above were very good at the time they were written. But ecology really has moved on in the last 20 years or so. And while we certainly don’t want our textbooks enshrining the latest trendy bandwagon, we do want them to reflect the current state of the field. It’s my sense that community ecology in particular is kind of being held back by textbooks that enshrine an outdated conceptual “roadmap” of the field.
For instance, my own “conceptual roadmap” for much of community ecology is very much the one Mark Vellend articulated nicely in this 2010 paper. Note that it’s nothing like what’s in the community ecology section of any current ecology textbook. Instead, current textbooks organize the community ecology material by interaction type (competition, predation, mutualism, etc.). John Lawton’s famous complaint that community ecology is just a stamp collection of special cases, with no generality, is in my view totally an artifact of his insistence on the traditional, textbook “conceptual roadmap” of what community ecology is all about. If you view the field as Vellend 2010 does, much of it looks like evolutionary biology–a field which no one considers merely a stamp collection of special cases. And you’ll look in vain in any general ecology textbook for coverage of niches and coexistence from a modern (i.e. Chessonian) point of view. No law says we have to teach niches by talking about Clements vs. Gleason vs. Whittaker vs. Hutchinson!
A textbook doesn’t just reflect the field–it can also be a way to shape the field. For better and for worse! For instance, I’m sure that a big reason why zombie ideas about the intermediate disturbance hypothesis persist is that they’re in all the textbooks. More broadly, textbooks are a way of organizing a field and imposing conceptual order. What is the field all about? What are the key questions and ideas, and how do they relate to one another? And there’s no one right way to impose order–it’s a judgment call, based on complex considerations. One key, and quite legitimate, consideration is the personal preference of the author. It’s perfectly legit for a textbook to promote its author’s personal “conceptual roadmap” of the field. Anyone who doesn’t like that roadmap can simply not assign that textbook. I think current ecology textbooks are quite similar to one another in terms of topic choice and organization. It’s high time for somebody young to look at ecology textbooks with fresh eyes–and then go write something different.
What do you think? Does ecology need a new textbook? If so, what should be in it? Not just in terms of specific topics like “more coverage of mutualisms” or “more coverage of applications” or whatever–I’m thinking about the structure and organization of the entire book. Start from a blank slate: what does your ideal, modern ecology textbook look like?