What are the greatest ecology & evolution dissertations ever? (UPDATED)

Marginal Revolution recently asked “What are the greatest dissertations ever?” It’s an economics blog, so the focus was on economics, and also on academia in general. Candidates include Gauss on the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra, Claude Shannon on information, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, and Marie Curie on “radio-active substances”.

What about in ecology and evolution?

Here’s an opening bid off the top of my head: Bob Holt’s classic 1977 paper defining (though not, as Bob would be the first to note, discovering) and thoroughly modeling the concept of apparent competition. That was part of his dissertation, if I’m not mistaken. Further back, Robert MacArthur’s classic work on niche partitioning in warblers was his dissertation work.

I ask this question mostly for fun, but thinking about it leads to thinking about larger issues. Like, do ecologists and evolutionary biologists tend to do their best (or maybe most creative) work when young? I’m sure you can point to examples for and against, making any statistical tendency hard to discern.

Asking this question also seems like a fun way for folks (including me!) to learn a bit about the history of ecology and evolution. And hopefully, reading about truly great science done by graduate students will make for inspiring reading for today’s graduate students.๐Ÿ™‚

UPDATE: In the comments, Ric Charnov (himself the author of one of the greatest ecology dissertations ever, on optimal foraging theory) passes on a link to where you can read the “story behind the paper”-type commentaries for many classic ecology papers (and papers from other fields) from before 1990. Organized by the year the commentaries were originally published, not by the year of the classic papers being commented upon, so you may have to browse a bit to find what you want. But it’s worth the effort.

44 thoughts on “What are the greatest ecology & evolution dissertations ever? (UPDATED)

  1. The two that come to mind immediately are Dan Simberloff’s test of the Equilibrium Theory of Biogeography on mangrove islands, and Dan Janzen’s experimental work with ants and bullhorn Acacia in Costa Rica. Clearly, those were dissertations with lasting impact. Both went on to the Academy, so their best work was not limited to their early years but a forecast of things to come. It could be that one-hit wonders are less memorable than those at the beginning of great careers? That is, there may be a bias in coming up with examples.

    • Good ones!

      Re: one hit wonders, I think if the hit was truly a big hit, it’ll be remembered. Think of Lindeman 1942 (another classic dissertation), his only paper because he died young.

      Although on the other hand, you probably have a point. Classics aren’t always instant classics. Rather, over time some very good pieces of work come to be regarded as classics. So you could be right that there are some dissertations that, while very good, come to be seen in retrospect as towering classics in part because the author has gone on to a lifetime of excellent work (and in part for other reasons, surely).

      Subsequent fame is no guarantee that one’s dissertation will become a classic, of course. There are plenty of famous ecologists whose dissertation work is just solid science that’s more or less forgotten today.

      • Yah, Lindeman came to mind for me as well, but in that case, its hard to call his dissertation a one-hit wonder because he perished in the process. He fundamentally altered ecosystems and community ecology with one paper, but maybe he had a body of work in him if he’d lived. Or, perhaps his tragic death – and Hutchinson’s post mortem sponsorship of him and his work – elevated the paper more than would have been the case? Perhaps Amy Winehouse was meant to be the next Bob Dylan, or perhaps she is more famous than deserved because she burned bright and died young?

      • While a grad student at Minnesota, I checked Lindeman’s original dissertation out of the library. (You can do that, apparently!) I was struck by the beautifully hand-drawn cross-sections of his pond and other figures. I was simultaneously grateful that we don’t have to hand-draw all our figures today!

      • “Perhaps Amy Winehouse was meant to be the next Bob Dylan, or perhaps she is more famous than deserved because she burned bright and died young?”

        I think I can safely say that you are the first person ever to compare Ray Lindeman to Amy Winehouse.๐Ÿ™‚

    • Meanwhile, the first two that first came to my mind are the same ones that Dan just mentioned! Janzen and Simberloff. A more challenging question, what about people who went on to spectacular fame who had theses that barely made a blip? At the top of that list for me would be EO Wilson, whose dissertation was a revision of a rather boring genus of ant. At the same time, he did a bunch of work on what became the Taxon Cycle, but the dissertation project itself, and the resulting papers, made scarce a splash.

      • @Terry:

        “A more challenging question, what about people who went on to spectacular fame who had theses that barely made a blip?”

        Jeff already raised that question–and I’ve already declined to answer.๐Ÿ™‚ No way I’m touching the question of “which famous scientists wrote really boring dissertations”!๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Two of my favorites are Gerald Wilkinson’s from UCSD (1984), which included what I *think* was the first evidence of reciprocal altruism in the wild, and David Sloan Wilson’s from MSU (1975), a theoretical piece on group selection. I mention the latter because it was something like 12 pages long, including references. When I was at MSU, my fellow grad students and I would joke about trying to beat his record.

      • Yes, David Sloan Wilson’s thesis is legendary at MSU and especially at KBS. It is held up as the model of quality not quantity (or, at least, it was when I was there). Don Hall, who was his dissertation advisor, said that it was initially rejected by the grad school because it was too short to bind, and a bound copy of the dissertation was required; Don asked them how many blank pages he should send over to them to include with it so they could bind it. Sadly, it was missing from the KBS library by the time I got there, so I couldn’t check it out myself.

      • “Don Hall, who was his dissertation advisor, said that it was initially rejected by the grad school because it was too short to bind, and a bound copy of the dissertation was required; Don asked them how many blank pages he should send over to them to include with it so they could bind it.”

        So. Much. Win!๐Ÿ™‚

    • I should have also mentioned that Gerald talks about his field work in a fun 12-minute segment of Radiolab, found here: http://www.radiolab.org/story/105440-blood-buddies/. What’s particularly fun about this example is that, according to his university’s website, “The research originated decades ago after he attended a course as a graduate student with Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS): he applied for and received one of their post-course student grants to get this research started.” So cool!

  3. Supernova theses, in my opinion, included Robert Macarthur’s on resource partitioning in Dendroica warblers; Joe Connell’s on the factors limiting the distribution of barnacles in the Scottish intertidal; Bob Whittaker’s on both the vegetation AND the insects of the Great Smoky Mountains; Ray Lindemann’s on the trophic dynamic concept at Cedar Creek Bog; Hal Mooney’s on physiological ecology of Sierra Nevadan plants; Dolph Schluter’s on adaptive radiation in Darwin’s finches. My own work, though hardly on the cosmic scale of those just mentioned, put a new and not entirely shabby spin on the adaptive significance of leaf form.

    • Great ones all!

      I had thought of Connell and Schluter when I was writing the post, but was too lazy to look up whether those classics arose from their dissertations.๐Ÿ™‚

      “My own work, though hardly on the cosmic scale of those just mentioned, put a new and not entirely shabby spin on the adaptive significance of leaf form.”

      It’s a measure of how rare and extraordinary truly “cosmic scale” work is that even really excellent dissertations like yours don’t quite qualify.๐Ÿ™‚

  4. In 1948 or 1949 (sources vary) David Lack was awarded a Sci. D. by Magdalene College, Cambridge, for his work on the Galapagos Finches. Whether this required submission of a dissertation (though in the UK we’d say “thesis”) is unclear to me: does anyone know? The new biography doesn’t say.

    It’s odd that he received this qualification as it is usually a post-PhD degree, but Oxbridge had some odd rules then๐Ÿ™‚ Clearly this work was hugely influential in evolutionary ecology.

  5. Definitely W.D. Hamilton’s kin selection/inclusive fitness papers, which were part of his dissertation, qualify. And I *think* that Trivers’ work on parental investment was done while he was a graduate student, though I am not sure if it’s part of his dissertation.

    • Oh yeah–tough to top Hamilton’s dissertation!

      “I *think* that Triversโ€™ work on parental investment was done while he was a graduate student, though I am not sure if itโ€™s part of his dissertation.”

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s unsure about this sort of thing! I’m still a little embarrassed that I wasn’t sure what was in Connell’s and Schluter’s dissertations.๐Ÿ™‚

    • And since you were too modest to mention it Marlene, do you mind if I ask: the Hamilton-Zuk hypothesis was part of your graduate work, right? (I’m going by memory on that)๐Ÿ™‚

    • Ok, I’m getting increasingly embarrassed by all the answers that didn’t *instantly* occur to me. Joan’s dissertation work is a bit outside my own area, but I have no excuse for not thinking of Dave’s dissertation just as fast as Bob Holt’s! Heck, I even *teach* his dissertation work in one of my classes!

    • If you want to write a post on “What famous ecologists wrote mediocre/ok/solid-but-nothing-special dissertations”, be my guest! Because I am *not* touching that one!

    • A related but fun (and non-awkward) post to write would ask which famous ecologists and evolutionary biologists started out in grad school working on something totally different than what they eventually became famous for? Rich Lenski is one (http://telliamedrevisited.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/lenski-interview-with-the-molecular-ecologist/). Here at Calgary, our own Lawrence Harder (probably the world leader on the evolution of plant flowering strategies) did his master’s degree on beavers. And there’d be a semi-serious angle too–it would be an excuse to talk about issues like how people choose their study systems and how they decide when to switch systems (and switch questions).

      • One “switch hitter” that comes to mind is Jared Diamond. Another is Stephen Hubbell, who’s dissertation was on bioenergetic models of isopods. I’ll let others decide if that fits into the category of solid-but-nothing-special.

      • @Matt:

        Yes, Diamond’s quite the polymath. He’s an MD, trained in physiology I think? (going by memory there, too lazy to look it up).

        Didn’t know Steve Hubbell’s dissertation was on isopod bioenergetics. Interesting. He also has an experimental paper from the early 80s showing long-term coexistence of two competing bacterial strains under culture conditions carefully contrived so that they had identical R* values for the limiting resource (Hansen & Hubbell 1980 [?] Science, if memory serves). I’ve always wondered if that project, rather than his observations of tropical forests, was the genesis of his interest in neutral theory…Probably some reader knows the answer.

      • Hadn’t realised Lawrence started out working on beavers. But I can probably trump that with whatever Robert May did his PhD work on; no idea what it was but it wasn’t ecology!

      • “whatever Robert May did his PhD work on;”

        Theoretical physics. That’s a whole ‘nother category, I think–ecologists whose PhD degrees are in other fields entirely.

        Lots of physicists and mathematicians move into other fields, including ecology, and put their mathematical chops to good use. Simon Levin’s PhD is in mathematics. My good friend Robin Snyder is a physics PhD, I believe. Many others.

        As mentioned above, Jared Diamond is an MD.

      • Sorry, I didn’t make myself clear: I knew it was theoretical physics but wasn’t sure what exactly he worked on.

        Yes, that would make for another interesting list.

  6. Joe Felsenstein (1968, Chicago). Basically clarified likelihood methods for phylogenetic inference, developed the contrasts methods and invented Bayesian phylogenetic methods (about 30 years before anyone else was working on them). I actually got a hold of one of the copies and still refer to it from time to time.

    • That’s another one that occurred to me as I was writing the post, but I left it out because I wasn’t sure if that was Charnov’s dissertation work. That’s another really good one!

      At this point, it’s almost looking like all of the most important, influential ecology of the late 50s, 60s, and 70s was from PhD students, except for Bob Paine’s keystone predation work (which was from early in his time as a prof)!๐Ÿ™‚ (I’m joking, but not totally joking…)

  7. Via Twitter, Allison Barner informs us that Gause wrote The Struggle for Existence *before* he was a PhD student:

    More specifically, according to Wikipedia he was an *undergraduate* at the time: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgy_Gause I’m going to just go ahead and assume Gause’s is the only competitor for the title of “greatest undergraduate project in the history of ecology”.

    That’s like a whole different category of amazingness. Which I’m embarrassed I didn’t know until just now, given that Gause is one of my intellectual heroes and I work in the same system he did.๐Ÿ™‚

    (By the way, you all should read The Struggle for Existence. Short, very accessible, and ahead of its time. Gause sounds bang up to date in his thinking about how to link models and data. It’s out of copyright, you can read it for free here: http://www.ggause.com/Contgau.htm)

  8. didn’t William Neill started to think and work on ontogenetic niche shifts while he was a PhD student at Texas University?. Personally, his papers had a big impact on me, but I believe also on the field of size-structured community ecology.

  9. How about Niles Elderidge- my understanding is that it introduced Punctuated Equilibrium as a theory there and later added Gould as an author on the publication to bulk up on the evidence. Someone should check this though.

    Joe Felsenstein’s dissertation on maximum likelihood and phylogenetics should be up there on the list for sure too. Groundbreaking still.

  10. My OFT work was indeed my Dissertation; It emerged from many talks with G Orians & JR Krebs.
    If anyone wants to read sketches of how (many) influential’ ecology’ papers, before ~1990, came to be written, search under author name in the index of SCIENCE CITATION CLASSICS ( ecology/environmental ) : http://garfield.library.upenn.edu/classics.html

    • Via email, Ric Charnov notes that some citations classics are missing from his link above because their authors declined to write commentaries on them. If you declined to write a commentary on your “citation classic”, ISI wouldn’t even list it as a citation classic.

  11. Raymond Lindeman – his dissertation introduced “trophic dynamics”, and “10% law”. It also led to lter at Cedar Creek (i guess that was after his death).

    Howard Odum – his dissertation introduced stable isotopes in ecology, and ecosystem energetics. Also “systems thinking”

    Not too sure about:
    Henry Cowles (dissertation on “ecological succession”), William Cooper (“climax concept”)

  12. Pingback: Friday links: does Gaad exist, stories behind classic ecology papers, evolution of chess, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  13. Pingback: Friday links: Lego scientists, who cares who “believes” in evolution, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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