Ecology needs a new textbook

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 It’s my sense that community ecology in particular is kind of being held back by textbooks that enshrine an outdated conceptual “roadmap” of the field.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?

30 thoughts on “Ecology needs a new textbook

  1. I’m very excited by this post. I teach non-major students at a community college and I’ve been looking for a good ecology textbook so I can introduce a new ecology class. I haven’t been able to find a good general text. Hopefully someone is thinking about this and working on writing a new, updated, easy to follow text.

    • Thanks for your comments. I think your comments, and those of Adriano below, raise a point I didn’t make in my post but probably should have: the need for different textbooks for different audiences. More vs. less advanced audiences, for instance. I confess that the ecology textbooks with which I’m most familiar are the most advanced ones, particularly BHT (which is what I was taught from as an undergrad).

      I’m curious: what texts have you had a look at, and why did you consider them unsuitable?

  2. Jeremy – I couldn’t agree more, which is why I’ve spent the last year writing one, as I think I mentioned when we met briefly a few months ago. It’s called Natural Systems and will be published in early 2014 through Wiley. The aim is to look at the organisation of nature from interactions among species (taking an avowedly Tilmanite perspective as a starting point) right through macroecology up to global biogeography.

    At the moment I’m soliciting reviews of the full draft text. If you’re interested then I’d be happy to share it with you, and would be extremely grateful for any feedback you’re willing to provide, whether general or specific. Why not help make sure that this is the textbook you need ;o) It was your paper that caused me to drop the IDH, so I already owe you some thanks for shaping the content!

    • Hi Markus,

      Yes, I think you did briefly mention this when we met. I assume the writing must be going well if you have a publication date!

      I’m very, very busy at the moment, and into the fall (teaching intro biostats for the first time and completely revamping the course). So I don’t want to promise feedback on your draft text and then fail to deliver. But I’d be happy to do my best to take a look if you want to send it on. It sure sounds like you’ve written something quite different from what’s out there already, so I’m intrigued…

      • Thanks, any feedback at all will be useful. I’ll contact you off list. I notice that no-one has yet mentioned Cain, Bowman & Hacker, which is my personal favourite of the standard ecology undergraduate textbooks and worth taking a look at.

  3. Jeremy,
    Nice text.
    One additional feature, that many people [like me] may believe constitutes a problem, is the excess of details. Perhaps Ecology is not the worst discipline in Biology regarding this problem, but surely our books have a lot of them. On the other hand, most basic books on Ecology lack the ‘investigative flavor’ so desired in a Science education.
    I got critical about these two issues after Rigler & Peters excellent (although quite depressing) book. Get it for free from the editor here:

    Click to access eebook06.pdf

    One interesting fact they present is that new editions of textbooks usually get longer; yes, there were lots of details that were missing in the previous edition. Of course, the problem here is not solely with the authors. Many teachers and students think that good books are heavy books.
    Adriano S. Melo

  4. Do you find that your students actually read the textbook? While I read textbooks during undergrad, most people did not. I also find that most students that I TA don’t bother buying/borrowing the textbook, let alone use it. Even if they were assigned a great textbook, it wouldn’t be read.

    • Good question. Hard to say. Depends a lot on how the textbook is used in the course, I think. And on the students. At my undergrad college, lots of students, including me, read the textbooks. Not that students at my college were “typical” or “representative” of course. Students vary.

      And even if many students won’t read the textbook, well, many students won’t do lots of things that they probably should do in order to get the most out of a course. As an instructor, I think you design the course with your students in mind, but only up to a point. So if many students choose not to read the textbook at all, well, at some level as an instructor you just say “Well, their loss. At least the good students like myscientificlife read it.”

      Worth keeping in mind that undergrads aren’t the only audience for general ecology textbooks, though they’re obviously the biggest one. For instance, grad students studying for their qualifying exams will often plow through one or more textbooks.

    • The textbook is not only for the students. I teach introductory biology courses to non-major students who just need a science credit. My background is in biochemistry and molecular biology. I need a good textbook in order to teach ecology since I am not an expert in that field and I’d much rather teach modern ideas of ecology than go from what I learned myself as an undergrad.

  5. In passing, one thing I’ll note about the Vellend 2010 “conceptual roadmap” for community ecology is that it actually leaves out or pushes into the background a good deal of what’s traditionally considered part of community ecology. Food webs and trophic structure for instance–not immediately obvious how to fit all that stuff within the framework of Vellend 2010. That’s an illustration of what I mean by looking at the field with fresh eyes. Through fresh eyes, the field can look *really* different! If you look at community ecology through the eyes of Vellend 2010, a big chunk of community ecology looks quite well integrated and “unified”–and other big chunks of community ecology look like totally separate topics! I mean, maybe an ecology textbook that used the Vellend 2010 framework to talk about community ecology wouldn’t even call it “community ecology” at all! Maybe such a book wouldn’t even be organized along the traditional hierarchical lines of individuals–>populations–>communities–>ecosystems. I don’t know, I’m just throwing the possibility out there to illustrate just how radical a rethink is within the bounds of possibility.

    • That Vellend (2010) paper convinced my. Let’s hope and wait for his textbook.

      There are lose ends in population genetics as well, I guess.

      Likewise, food webs and trophic structures may be integrated later or find their theoretical explanation in some physical or chemical constraints that cannot directly be derived from the selection-drift-dispersal-speciation theory of Vellend. It’s definitely worth having a textbook that lets community ecology seen as evolutionary ecology writ large.

      • Well, some bits of food webs could be made to fit in Vellend’s framework. Coexistence of competitors via keystone predation for instance is just a food web-based mechanism that generates what population geneticists would call negative frequency dependent selection leading to a protected polymorphism. But other bits of food web ecology, like food chain length, trophic cascades, trophic transfer efficiency, etc., would indeed have to be treated as a separate topic.

  6. I teach ecology for bachelor students in biology, using BHT since a number of years. Not because it is the book I want, but because I find it the best book available. I really agree on the need for a new book, with a new, less detail oriented focus. Of course, given the age of contemporary books, it would be good to have a fresh start just for that reason. From my experience, we also need a book with clearer structure. A structure with chapters clearly presenting the problem to solve, the theory needed to solve it, and then examples with data relevant to exploring the problem would be nice.

  7. What about a book that focuses on some key questions instead of covering the field,
    e.g. Big questions in ecology and evolution, by Sherratt and Wilkinson?
    Much of the current textbooks try to describe every subfield, which reads then a bit like an enumeration. Focusing on some key questions might be a way to “hook” the students…

    • Totally depends what sort of course you’re teaching, I think. At Calgary, for instance, the 2nd year introductory ecology course serves as a pre-requisite for many different upper-level ecology courses. So the introductory course needs to be fairly systematic and comprehensive. But sure, there are other sorts of ecology courses out there, and for some of them a book like Sherratt and Wilkinson might be just the ticket.

  8. I see ecology as an all-encompassing field in biology, i.e., there is no other field in biology that doesn’t have strong ties to concepts in ecology. That means ecology (sensu lato) is a huge field, which makes me wonder what we could stand to cut? Maybe I’m the only one that thinks ecology doesn’t need to be covered by a single textbook? I’d love to see a minimalist text that nicely balances a presentation of core material along side supplementary material that’s easy to integrate into a class or independent study.

    I haven’t seen a great example yet, but some of the recent online (or “on CD”) interactive supplementary materials really seem promising. Optimistically, these supplements could soon provide a nice way for authors to trim those excess details from the main text and modularize that information in a way that results in a nice minimalist text with a lot of add-on content that’s readily available to interested students & instructors.

    • Old fashioned guy that I am, I admit that I was thinking of a traditional textbook, rather than in terms of highly modular, customizable, interactive material. I confess I have no clue how to do such online material well, or the advantages and drawbacks of such material as compared to a traditional textbook.

  9. I have taught Ecology on and off for 30 years. By far the best text for undergraduates was Colinvaux, Ecology 2. It is, unfortunately, out of print.

  10. I recently published a Canadian edition of Smith and Smith. It’s a tough balancing act to work from a well-known textbook that’s been through many editions. I incorporated Vellend’s ideas as much as i could, as well as Cheeson’s storage effect and other co-existence mechanisms, but it wasn’t easy to find the right level.

  11. I see this is an older post, but has anyone had the chance to look at ‘The Princeton Guide to Ecology’? I finished my undergrad with minimal textbook purchases, mainly due to their expense, however I am now interested in building a reference library for myself. Now that I am free of exams, I actually have time to think, and would like to refresh my memory on all things ecology, as well as fill in the gaps for courses I would have liked to have taken. For the record, in first year biology we used Campbell Biology and I took it upon myself to check out the online interactive materials. I found them to be much more fun than just sitting and reading, and I think they really helped me do well in that course.

  12. I worked for ten years on writing an ecology textbook based on a historical approach. I thought it was good, unique, and full of innovations, but couldn’t get it published. There seemed to be two problems, the textbook industry is super skiddish right now about embarking on anything new especially if it’s be printed in hardcopy. Secondly, the reviewers tended to be brutal, ridiculous, petty, and closed minded as a group. I know, I know, there is always legitimate criticism, and I was ready to listen humbly and act on it. I received some of this and was grateful to the three or four reviewers who actually read their sections and contributed professionally But the overall level of criticism was shocking. The greatest tenor of it was that they didn’t want innovation – it would require a change in their syllabus. For instance, I included a section on wildlife management. Seems to me this is one important approach one could take for understanding nature that some people would like to include in their course. It has a long history of theory and application, just like other approaches (populations, communities, ecosystems, landscapes, conservation biology, natural history). In fact, I’ve found that it’s the approach novice students in my ecology courses like THE BEST. Reviewers were brutal, to the effect of, I don’t know anything about wildlife management, but I don’t like it and would never adopt an ecology textbook with anything as second-class as this, and there is no precedent in an ecology textbook for its inclusion, and it’s about hunting, thus it doesn’t belong. So it went with every innovation I tried. A second example involved my goal of making a list of all named theories and categorizing the ideas. In doing so it occurred to me that one of the few fundamental things we can actually conclude for sure in ecology is that no population can grow indefinitely while maintaining the same individual body size. I had to give this idea a name so I could put it in my list. I called it the limits to growth idea or something. This resulted in a nuclear explosion among some of the reviewers, to the effect of – I would never adopt this textbook if it’s going to propose new theories in ecology that have not been adequately proposed, etc. etc. In essence, there was very little open mindedness. I’m still committed to publishing the book in some form, perhaps as a tradebook format instead of a textbook. I’m open to suggestions or maybe there are others out there with a similar experience. We should form a support group if so.

    • I would love to have alook at Lou’s textbook! In my undergrad I found lack of innovation a huge problem among some professors, which I found especially frustrating in the consantly evolving fields of biological sciences. As mentioned above, “No law says we have to teach niches by talking about Clements vs. Gleason vs. Whittaker vs. Hutchinson!”
      Lou, could you possibly publish an e-book or kindle edition for the time being?

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