Book review: The Silwood Circle

This is the story of “the Silwood mafia”.

At least, that’s the term I first heard, during my time as a postdoc at the NERC Centre for Population Biology (CPB), located at Imperial College London‘s Silwood Park campus. The CPB no longer exists, but at the time it was one of the very best places in the world to do population and community ecology. I arrived there knowing something of the history of the CPB, and of the Silwood Park campus more broadly. For instance, some of the pioneers of modern ecology, folks like Mick Crawley and Mike Hassell, were still on the Imperial College faculty and pursuing active research programs (some of them are still there today). And others like Bob May and John Lawton still maintained close ties to Silwood. But it wasn’t until after I arrived that I fully realized just how important and influential the leading Silwood-associated ecologists had been in shaping the development and direction of ecology, both in Britain and internationally. And it wasn’t until after I arrived that I realized that this influence inspired a fair bit of jealousy and resentment in some quarters. To the point where some outsiders began referring to them as the Silwood mafia.

In The Silwood Circle, Imperial College London historian Hannah Gay charts the careers of a small, close-knit, informal “core” group of ecologists with similar but non-competing research interests: Richard Southwood (the informal leader of the group and a mentor to the others), Robert May, Gordon Conway, Mike Hassell, Roy Anderson, Mick Crawley, John Lawton, John Beddington, John Krebs, and David Rogers. If that sounds like a “Who’s Who” list of many of the most famous senior ecologists in the world, well, that’s no accident. Gay has a longstanding interest in generational groups and how they make their way in science, and how the social dimension of science affects its direction. Given those interests, she could hardly have picked a better case study. This isn’t history by the winners–but it’s history about the winners.

The backdrop of the story is the changing face of ecology as a whole. In the first half of the 20th century, ecology was very much a peripheral discipline, widely seen as the domain of amateurs if indeed it was noticed at all. By the end of the century, it was widely seen as much more central, and had become professionalized. In the 1950s and 60s, growing environmental awareness created a demand and opportunity for professional scientific advice on a broad range of ecological topics. And pioneers like Hutchinson, Slobodkin, MacArthur, and Holling had begun to point the way towards a new ecology, placing a much heavier emphasis on mathematical theory, hypothesis testing, manipulative experiments, and rigorous statistical analysis. The members of the Silwood circle recognized that opportunity early and seized it. Their work blazed the trails that many other ecologists subsequently followed.

A theme of the book is the interplay of chance and determinism in the fates of scientists and their ideas. The Silwood circle emerges as Exhibit A for the truth of the aphorisms that “chance favors the prepared mind” and “it’s best to be good and lucky”. For instance, Mick Crawley was lucky to hear about an upcoming opening on the faculty at Imperial College. He heard about it at a pub lunch with John Maynard Smith and Mike Hassell, an illustration of the importance of social connections. But it wasn’t blind luck that had caused him, years earlier, to do a Ph.D. involving a lot of statistics and computer programming. That was a very unusual choice at the time–but it was a prescient one. Silwood was ahead of the curve in terms of hiring quantitatively-oriented ecologists, but quantitative skills soon were much in demand throughout ecology. Through both the example of his own research and several textbooks, Mick Crawley taught a whole generation of ecologists how to think quantitatively and statistically. And it wasn’t luck that caused him to say, as soon as he heard about the opening, “I could do that job”. Put another way, to say that Crawley had a “lucky opportunity” is to say something about him as well as his luck, since for someone else without Crawley’s skills, hearing about that job opening wouldn’t have been an opportunity at all. Or consider physicist Robert May. He was fortunate to get the mentoring and advice he did, which helped him meet some very good biologists. But those meetings would’ve come to nothing if May hadn’t had some really good ideas and been very good at linking those ideas to big questions biologists wanted to answer. Stories like this come up throughout the book.

Correctly, Gay doesn’t just write off the members of the Silwood circle as naked careerists, or the multifarious formal and informal ways in which they helped each other as a nepotistic conspiracy. For instance, she notes the importance of interpersonal trust for enabling people to make decisions in the face of imperfect information and the inherent unpredictability of the future. For example, later in their careers several members of the Silwood circle became trusted government advisers. And in most cases that trust was justified, though Gray discusses the controversy over an arguable exception (the handling of the vCJD crisis, in which Southwood was involved). And if the joke that the title “F.R.S.” stood for “Friends of Richard Southwood” rather than “Fellow of the Royal Society” has more than a little truth to it, well, ambitious scientists have always worked together to advance their shared causes. Including by nominating one another for awards like membership in the Royal Society. The Origin of Species would hardly have been noticed had Darwin’s many friends not worked behind the scenes to support it, and one another. For better or worse, science is done by people, and so you can’t effectively support ideas without also supporting the people who hold them.

Gay notes that members of the Silwood circle shared various traits, which she tentatively suggests help explain their success. For instance, all were keen naturalists as children–collecting insects, watching birds, etc. I found this interesting because they subsequently took ecology in a direction that (incorrectly in my view) is seen by some as inimical to natural history or even field work. For instance, May’s landmark book Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems is famously abstract and divorced from system-specific biological details. And the Ecotron controlled environment facility that John Lawton spearheaded at Silwood was criticized for purportedly being unnatural, unhelpful, and diverting resources from more traditional ecological work (Lawton 1996). Gay suggests that other shared traits include ambition, competitiveness (May in particular is famously competitive), a heightened yet selective awareness of what others are doing and thinking, and a greater than usual willingness to make evaluative judgments about other scientists and their work. For instance, members of the Silwood circle mostly didn’t like the systems ecology work of the Odums.

The book also is a case study in how to build a topnotch research group that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Tellingly, it was not a matter of the people in charge just trying to hire clones of themselves. Richard Southwood didn’t himself pursue the same sort of research as many of the people he hired or mentored. Southwood was no modeler or statistician, for instance. But he was very good at spotting talent, and at nudging people in productive directions.

Gay also tries to give the reader a sense of the science itself. What questions, fundamental and applied, were circle members trying to address, how did they address them, and what was new and important about their approaches? In this I think she’s fairly successful, but it’s tough for me to judge since as a professional ecologist I wasn’t the intended audience for these explications.

The book isn’t hagiography. For instance, Gay is matter of fact about how the Silwood circle included no women. She talks at greatest length about Southwood’s own attitudes towards women. He seems to have viewed women as capable of playing only a supporting role in the advancement of science.

One thing I wonder is whether it would’ve been possible for the Silwood circle, or its equivalent, to achieve equal success in the US. Back when I first heard the pejorative term “Silwood mafia”, I remember thinking how weird it was that a small cohort of people associated with one university campus could ever attain so much influence that they’d be seen as a “mafia”. I mean, a place like UC-Davis has lots of hugely-famous and influential ecologists–but nobody ever talks about a “Davis mafia”! Don’t get me wrong, there are schools of ecological thought associated with particular places in the US. For instance, according to Meg, people sometimes talk about the “Yale school” and “Wisconsin school” of limnology. But the US just seems like too big a pond to ever be dominated by any one “school” of fish, as it were.

I probably read the book with more interest than most, because of my personal connections to Silwood and my pre-existing admiration for several members of the Silwood circle. But I think the book will be of broad interest to many. Certainly, it’s unusual and intriguing to read a serious, detailed socio-historical study of people whom you’ve met, and who are mostly still alive. And it was interesting to hear someone articulate not just a description of how science works as a social activity, but why it works that way and why that way of working can often be good for science (rather than bad, or merely inevitable rather than good or bad). You may find it slow-moving in places. Gay describes in great detail the career trajectory of every member of the circle, down to the level of key conferences they attended, specific projects on which they worked, their movements from one job to another, etc. And there’s no juicy gossip and little in the way of personal anecdotes. Gay’s goal was to produce a serious study of the sociology of science, not dig dirt or even write potted biographies. I think she succeeded, and I recommend The Silwood Circle.

*Dick Southwood, the father figure of Silwood ecology, occasionally referred to the group he mentored as the “Silwood Mob”. He meant it affectionately.

28 thoughts on “Book review: The Silwood Circle

  1. “when I first heard the pejorative term “Silwood mafia”, I remember thinking how weird it was that a small cohort of people associated with one university campus could ever attain so much influence that they’d be seen as a “mafia””

    Speaking as a Brit I think one of the reasons why the term “Silwood mafia” was used was that they (rightly or wrongly) were seen as the recipients of a disproportionately large amount of grant funding for ecological research, particularly from NERC. Such funding has always been hard to obtain in the UK, with modest per capita amounts compared to the USA. That’s not to say grant funding is easy to obtain in the USA, but there’s historically always been more to go around on the other side of the pond, or at least so it appears from this side of the pond!

    Nice review, makes me want to read it. If you’re looking for another book in a related vein, I can recommend the recent biography of David Lack. At some point I’ll write a review of it on my blog because, likewise, I have a personal connection: Lack’s son (Andrew) and former research assistant (Denis Owen) were my PhD supervisors.

    • “Speaking as a Brit I think one of the reasons why the term “Silwood mafia” was used was that they (rightly or wrongly) were seen as the recipients of a disproportionately large amount of grant funding for ecological research, particularly from NERC”

      Yes, that was definitely a big part of it–the opposition to the Ecotron was one manifestation of that. There were other manifestations that I’m aware of, but they’re the kind of thing best talked about over a beer rather than on a blog…

    • It’s worth noting that while Gay interviewed members of the Silwood circle and had access to Southwood’s voluminous papers, she doesn’t seem to have talked to prominent British ecologists outside the circle. But given her interests, it’s not clear to me why she would have wanted to.

  2. I’m really excited that folk are starting to write the stories of ecologists. There’s so much fascinating grist for the storytelling mill in our field, I hope this is the start of much more! I write this having just been enthralled by the chapters of The Great Gulf about Bigelow and the dawn of biological oceanography and fisheries ecology here in the Gulf of Maine. But I can think of so many more rich stories from field stations, departments, and more that are ripe for exploration. I also really enjoyed Lords of the Fly getting into genetics and evolution, although I found the followup Landscapes and Labscapes a bit dry. Any other ones you’d recommend? Any that have some of the ripping good yarns that we all know dot our field?

    • I recommend Dennis Chitty’s Do Lemmings Commit Suicide? Beautiful Hypotheses and Ugly Facts. Dennis Chitty was a small mammal population ecologist, the book is his chronicle of his career. It’s a good record of “Elton’s ecologists” (and from what I’ve heard, provides a much more accurate picture of what that group was like than other, more widely-read sources). And it’s an unusual scientific biography in that it’s a story of failure. Chitty spent a lifetime trying to explain small mammal cycles–and by his own admission he failed. I also found it interesting because I think he misdiagnoses the reasons for his failure. Chitty’s unusually explicit about his own philosophy of science–and it’s a philosophy that isn’t really suited to understanding cyclic population dynamics, I don’t think. Chitty doesn’t really think in terms of nonlinear stochastic dynamical systems. Instead, Chitty seems to have wanted necessary and sufficient conditions for population cycles, and so would make mistakes like rule out predation as a driver of cycles because of a few cases in which prey populations declined despite predator abundance being low (I’m going by memory here, but that’s the gist). It’s ironic that his book was published in 1995, at about the same time as folks like Peter Turchin, Ottar Bjornstad, and many others began having significant explanatory success thinking about populations as nonlinear stochastic dynamical systems. I don’t mean any of this as criticism of Chitty at all, he was a very good ecologist. Ecology is hard.

    • And while it’s not marine biology or fisheries ecology, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers is tremendous fun. It’s a biography of famously prolific and eccentric mathematician Paul Erdos. Probably the best scientific bio I’ve ever read (it’s only competition for me is Janet Brown’s two-volume Darwin bio, a very different and much more scholarly book, though also packed with entertaining anecdotes).

  3. Other favorites of mine: The Beak of the Finch (about Peter and Rosemary Grant, but also other folks) and A Reason For Everything: Natural Selection in the English Imagination (potted biographies of 20th century English evolutionary biologists.

      • And making me do more comment moderation than I’d otherwise have to do! Your comments don’t ordinarily require moderation, they’re automatically approved because you’ve commented before. Except that WordPress seems to flag any comment that has advertising images inserted, thereby obliging me to check whether it’s spam. So thanks for all the great recommendations–but boo for creating work for me! 🙂

  4. Great review Jeremy – certainly before I joined the Silwood crowd we outsiders did see them as an unfairly over-funded campus – once I became a part of it I soon realised that all our funding was fully justified 😉 It was indeed a great place to work during the 1990s when the CPB was full of bright young ecologists like Brad Hawkins, Chris Thomas, Shaid Naeem and of course you 😉

    • “certainly before I joined the Silwood crowd we outsiders did see them as an unfairly over-funded campus – once I became a part of it I soon realised that all our funding was fully justified”

      I think you win the thread with that one. 🙂

      “during the 1990s when the CPB was full of bright young ecologists like Brad Hawkins, Chris Thomas, Shaid Naeem and of course you”

      I’m sincerely flattered, but your timing’s a bit off. 🙂 I only got my PhD in June of 2000 and moved to Silwood early that fall. So I wasn’t part of the legendary mid-to-late-90s group (which also included Sharon Lawler and many others, of course). Don’t get me wrong, there were excellent people at the CPB when I was there. Jon Levine, Andy Hector, Dave Murrell with whom I shared an office, Frank Van Veen, Matt Goddard who’s done some great stuff on experimental evolution of yeast, others… But by the time I left (and if memory serves), the CPB’s funding had been cut, and the Ecotron’s last high-profile experiment was in the rearview mirror. It’s a measure of how terrific the late-90s CPB was that I don’t think the early-oughts CPB matched it.

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