Unread classics in ecology

I’ve been thinking more about this recent Crooked Timber post on classic books that hardly anybody actually reads.* Suggestions in the post and comments include The Gulag Archipelago, Joyce’s Ulysses, Gödel, Escher, Bach, the Bible, War and Peace, and anything by Pynchon or Proust.**

Many scientific classics would qualify for this list. Anything by Kepler, Galileo, or Newton, for instance. I’m sure chemists don’t read Lavoisier. I bet geneticists don’t read Mendel. Etc.

Classics can go unread for different reasons. The lasting insights of people like Newton, Lavoisier, and Mendel have long since been incorporated into textbooks, so nobody has any reason besides historical curiosity to read the originals. And arguably, even historical curiosity might be better satisfied by reading about those works rather than actually reading them, since the outdated language and terminology of the originals often makes them difficult to read even in translation. In contrast, if a literary classic from the last couple of centuries is unreadable then that arguably means it’s flawed, though perhaps with compensating virtues. Of course, a book that’s unreadable for one audience might be highly readable for another. A Brief History of Time is infamous as a bestseller that nobody read, but I suspect that most of the physicists who bought it read it and enjoyed it.

I’ve read Darwin’s Origin of Species and recommend it highly, but my track record on other ecology classics is pretty spotty. I’ve never read Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, though I’ve heard it’s very readable. I’ve never read anything by Cowles, Clements or Gleason. I’ve never read Elton’s animal ecology textbook. I’ve never read Lotka. I have read Gause’s The Struggle for Existence and was very impressed. Though of course I have a personal bias since I work in the same system as Gause, and so it’s hard for me to separate purely historical or personal interest from scientific interest when it comes to Gause. And there are lots of classic papers in ecology and evolution that I know only second hand, but for purposes of this post I want to mostly stick to books and monographs.

So, just for fun: what classics of ecology have you actually read? Take the poll below!

(Yes, I know the poll isn’t a comprehensive list of ecological classics. Sorry. I just picked the first things I could think of, trying to include books (and in Cowles’ case, a series of papers) of a wide range of ages. You get the polls you pay for on this blog.)

A final, deliberately-contrarian thought: can it sometimes be a bad idea to read the classics? Not just because of opportunity costs (time spent reading anything is time not spent reading or doing something else), but because it actually might reduce your ability to think critically and rigorously or expose you to zombie ideas? Where does “having some first hand knowledge of the history of your discipline” stop and “excessive respect for outdated ideas” begin? Here’s Noah Smith, articulating my worry pretty well in the context of economics:

There is nothing more annoying than when you argue with some idea, and then some guy comes along and says “Go read Ludwig von Mises, then you’ll understand everything.” No you won’t. You’ll just get a warm glow of understand-y-ness, and you’ll end up parroting words and phrases from the Old Master without being any better able to think critically and originally about the issues.

Then again, a lot of those old folks were really smart, and there are probably insights embedded in their writings that are too vague or complex to be translated directly into math, but which contain information, the way the priors of a portfolio manager carry valuable information in a Black-Litterman model. But the flip side of that is that you probably have to be a really, really smart person to extract that deep-buried insight. Economic history, in other words, seems like very dangerous sauce to me – in the right hands it can be useful, but it is usually in the wrong hands.

Looking forward to your responses to the poll, and to your comments.

*Unread classics are different than neglected classics. Neglected classics are works that deserve to be regarded as classics, but aren’t because they’re not widely known. Unread classics are widely regarded as classics, despite the fact that few people have actually read them. People know of unread classics, but don’t know them first hand.

**Also tables of logarithms. 🙂

4 thoughts on “Unread classics in ecology

  1. Voting so far is kind of as I expected, but with some surprises.

    I expected the Origin and the recent books (MacArthur & Wilson, May, MacArthur) to be the most-read, and they are so far. But I didn’t expect Gause to be next, even though I’ve plugged it to our readers. I’d figured Buffon and Lotka would be very little read and so far they are. But I thought Wallace would do a bit better than that but so far it’s down there with Lotka. I’m surprised Andrewartha and Birch isn’t doing better. And I’m surprised Malthus isn’t down there with Buffon. But it’s early yet…

  2. Okay, now that more results are in the picture is a bit different.

    Darwin’s Origin is clearly the most-read of these classics. Can’t tell exactly how widely read because this poll doesn’t give me the total number of voters. But we can bound it. The total number of voters is between 77 (the number of people who read the Origin + the number of people who checked “none”) and 268 (the total number of items checked, across all voters). So the Origin has been read by somewhere between 59/77 and 59/268 of voters. I suspect the true number is closer to the latter than the former, but that’s a guess on my part.

    Second place clearly goes to MacArthur & Wilson.

    Then it’s a big drop down to third place, “anything by Gleason”, which surprises me greatly. But maybe it shouldn’t because that’s not a book?

    It’s a steady drop from there down to the bottom of the poll, with no big breaks. May is in fourth place, which I expected as it’s recent. But I’m *very* surprised to see Clements and Malthus next. Then comes “none” and MacArthur. I’m kind of surprised that people who’ve read none of these classics are as common as people who’ve read a recent one. Bringing up the rear are Andrewartha and Birch (surprised this isn’t more widely read), Lotka, Wallace (thought that would do a bit better), and finally Buffon, which no one’s read (not to my surprise).

  3. I was in grad school when the “Foundations of Ecology” volume came out, and that was instantly adopted for summer reading groups and grad seminars (not to mention recommended reading for prelims!); I think I eventually read everything in it. Nowadays, the students at UCSB don’t know about this volume; I wonder how widely read it is.

    As a dynamical systems student in Bill Schaffer’s lab, reading May and MacArthur was pretty much obligatory.

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