Brief book reviews: The Science of the Struggle for Existence, Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection, and Why Do Lemmings Commit Suicide? (UPDATED)

This post is an experiment. It’s brief reviews of three older books that I think will be of interest to many of you, but that I suspect many of you weren’t aware of. My goal is to say just enough to help you decide whether or not to add these books to your reading list.

The Science of the Struggle for Existence by Gregory Cooper. So, what is ecology, anyway? How is it related to other fields, like evolutionary biology? Does ecology have laws? What cognitive role does theory play in ecology, and how is that role different than the role theory plays in other fields like physics? Philosopher Gregory Cooper sets out to address those questions and more. I don’t know that he’s entirely successful. Much of the book seemed to comprise throat-clearing. Cooper spends a lot of time briefly raising issues only to set them aside with a promise to return to them later. He also spends a lot of time worrying over definitions. Indeed, the book is structured around a–ultimately only semi-successful–search for the definition of ecology, in the hopes that once a definition is in hand light can be shed on conceptual issues and debates within ecology. And Cooper recognizes this, as he takes great pains to explain why he structured the book as he did, and periodically apologizes for spending yet more time on preliminaries. The result is a book that was kind of rough sledding for me, though probably a philosopher would find it easier going. The strengths of the book include the second chapter, which is an excellent potted history of ecology that I recommend to any graduate student. And near the end of the book all the preparatory remarks start to pay some dividends, as Cooper sheds some light on the value of theory in ecology. The main take-home point is that there can be genuine theoretical explanations in ecology even though there are no laws in ecology (if you want elaboration, read the book!) (UPDATE: In the comments, philosopher Chris Eliot suggests–quite fairly–that this may not be the best one sentence summary of Cooper’s take home point. I admit I struggled to come up with a pithy summary…) At the end, I was left with the feeling that Cooper could’ve made the points he wanted to make more briefly and directly. But maybe that’s at least partially ecology’s fault rather than Cooper’s fault. A few years ago, I attended a seminar at Calgary by a leading philosopher of science. After her talk, I asked her why philosophers of science didn’t talk more about ecology. She replied “Because ecology is a mess.” Other reviews (both from philosophers, and both more positive than mine) here and here.

Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection by Peter Godfrey-Smith. Very much at the interface of evolutionary biology and philosophy. Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher at Harvard, looks at how standard idealizations in philosophy of evolutionary biology–and indeed, in evolutionary biology textbooks–need to be modified and extended to account for the diversity of the natural world. For instance, how do you think about group vs. individual selection if individuals aren’t solitary but don’t really live in well-demarcated groups either? What if individual organisms themselves aren’t well-defined? How should one think about “low fidelity” mechanisms of heredity? It’s an attempt to get away from an overly-narrow focus on clear-cut, textbook examples, while maintaining and building on core Darwinian insights (Godfrey-Smith is no fan of alternative paradigms like symbiogenesis) and still fitting everything into a unified framework. I enjoyed the book and learned a lot from it–it really does provide a fresh perspective on some long-standing issues in both biology and philosophy of biology. I’m now clearer about things like “evo-devo” than I was before. It also calls philosophical attention to some new issues. And it’s a clear, easy read (very much in contrast to Cooper’s book in that respect, at least for a non-philosopher like me). The only really weak bit to my mind was the bit where Godfrey-Smith basically does armchair pyschoanalysis on gene selectionists like Richard Dawkins. Sorry, but as someone who wants to understand evolution, I don’t care about Richard Dawkins’ (or anyone’s) psychology and don’t see why I should. Other reviews here and here.

Do Lemmings Commit Suicide? Beautiful Hypotheses and Ugly Facts by Dennis Chitty. This is eminent population ecologist Dennis Chitty’s scientific autobiography, describing his career-long search for the explanation for cyclic population dynamics of small mammals. It’s unusual for scientific biographies, in that it’s a chronicle of admitted failure. Throughout the book, Chitty emphasizes how he kept running into dead ends, kept rejecting one hypothesis after another to explain small mammal cycles, until at the end he’s left without any answers. Chitty also is unusually explicit about his philosophy of science–his attitude towards theory, observations, and experiments, how he decided exactly what projects to pursue and why, etc. I think those two aspects of the book–Chitty’s admitted failure to answer the big question he set out to ask, and his philosophy of science–are closely connected. As the subtitle of the book hints, Chitty has a sort of hard-nosed empiricist mindset. He’s skeptical of mathematical models unless they’ve been tested empirically, and he’s quick to reject models if they don’t pass a test. The trouble is that he’s often too quick to reject hypotheses on the basis of evidence that shouldn’t be taken as decisive. Chitty often seems to be looking for necessary and sufficient conditions for population cycles, or some causal sequence of events that reliably occurs every time a small mammal population crashes and then recovers. Make no mistake, Chitty learned a lot by taking the approach he did–but ultimately I don’t think it’s the most effective approach for studying nonlinear stochastic dynamical systems. It’s ironic that, around the same time Chitty’s book was published (1996), the study of population cycles made a big leap forward, thanks to the synthesis of mathematical modeling, long- and short-term data, and modern methods of time series analysis. It’s my impression that we now have a good handle on the causes of many famous population cycles, including those of many small mammals, with every prospect for further progress (see here, here, here, and here). Implicit in this recent progress, I think, is a quite different philosophy of science than Chitty’s. The book also is interesting as history. For instance, I’m told it’s more accurate than other accounts of life in Charles Elton’s Bureau of Animal Population at Oxford (where Chitty worked for over 20 years), though I can’t confirm that. Overall, it’s a very thought-provoking read, I recommend it highly, especially to students. Another review of the book here.

Let me know in the comments if you found this useful. These sorts of posts are easy for me to write, and so I’m happy to do more of them if folks want.

11 thoughts on “Brief book reviews: The Science of the Struggle for Existence, Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection, and Why Do Lemmings Commit Suicide? (UPDATED)

  1. great selection of books and neat reviews. keep doing that! What is your opinion on Ecological Understanding, The Nature of Theory and the Theory of Nature (Pickett, Kolasa & Jones)? Maybe a diffent view of Cooper on the cognitive role of theory in Ecology.

  2. Thank you for the reviews and links to other reviews on Cooper’s book, especially that by Mikkelson. Watching ecology succumb to the trend of specialization over the decades, following in the footsteps of biology, has been sadly amusing. Yet, with the recent institutional push for ‘integrative biology’, hopefully the ‘specialization’ mindset will relax in ecology as well.

  3. Nice, Jeremy. As I just tweeted, if what stands out to you as Cooper’s take-away is that ecology can explain without laws, what stands out to me with a philosophy background is why and how he thinks theoretical ecology can successfully offer explanations. Cooper argues that ecology explains by identifying capacities, tendencies, and dispositions. In arguing this, he broadly follows the philosophy of science of Nancy Cartwright, e.g. in her work like Nature’s Capacities and Their Measurement. It stands out because this view is pretty controversial, and rejects—for better or worse!—a lot of preceding empiricist philosophy of science that had emphasized laws and their use in hypothetico-deductivism. For what it’s worth, I think Cooper is right that theoretical ecology sometimes explains without laws, but I’m not so sure that it does so by putting together capacities.

    • Thanks Chris. Was hoping you and other proper philosophers would comment. Helps cover for my limitations as a reader and summarizer of philosophy. I actually have read one of Cartwright’s books (The Dappled World) and so Cooper’s ideas about causal capacities weren’t wholly new to me. But I struggled to come up with a one sentence summary of the notion of “capacities”.

      Will update the post to point readers toward your comments.

  4. On Darwinian Populations: I’m pleased to read it was an easy read for a biologist, and wonder therefore what you make of the central unified framework Godfrey-Smith offers us for describing Darwinian populations. As I read it, the central framework is a state space with six parameters (H, S, C, B, G, I), some of which optimize at the middle, and some of which optimize at the 0 or 1 extremes. Though it might all work, it’s pretty hard for me to think about the six dimensions simultaneously, much less remember or repeat them. I was left wondering if there could have been a different way, in the end, of synthesizing the six parameters and presenting the central model than the particular state spaces he uses.

    • I don’t have any strong opinions on Godfrey-Smith’s unified framework. I read it as a testable series of hypotheses, or perhaps an “opening bid” that can be refined through further theoretical and empirical work. I was fine with the number of dimensions, though I suppose if there’d been many more than that I’d start to have wondered if the “unifying framework” wasn’t really just a stamp collection of special cases masquerading as a unifying framework. But I don’t know that I’d have found a framework with, say, just one or two dimensions to be very plausible–there’d have been too many obvious exceptions, or too many important cases that just weren’t covered.

      But I haven’t read any comparable attempts to do something like what Godfrey-Smith was trying to do, so I don’t have much of a basis for comparison or judgement besides gut instinct. Who else should I be reading who’s pursuing a similar sort of project?

      • Three much earlier projects in this vein are:

        Sober, Elliott. (1993). The nature of selection: evolutionary theory in philosophical focus. University of Chicago Press. [First published in 1984]

        Brandon, Robert. N. (1990). Adaptation and environment (Vol. 214). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

        Lloyd, Elisabeth. A. (1994). The structure and confirmation of evolutionary theory. Princeton University Press.

        They differ from PGS’s approach in that, while they are trying to give a characterization of evolutionary theory more broadly, as he is, they do it in terms of the existing mathematical models rather than trying to come up with a new framework. I have to admit that even as a philosopher of science I am not sure of the utility of PGS’s framework — I wasn’t sure what we are supposed to do with it. So, I guess I am more sympathetic to the approaches taken by Lloyd, Sober, and Brandon.

      • Thanks Roberta. It’s interesting to me to hear how Godfrey-Smith’s work looks to a philosopher of science.

        I’m familiar with the Sober and Brandon books; haven’t read the Lloyd. I guess I should’ve been clearer about what I meant when I asked for names of others pursuing similar projects to Godfrey-Smith. I meant something narrower than ‘identifying and addressing philosophical issues in evolutionary biology’. I meant others focusing on the specific issues on which Godfrey-Smith focuses. Which are different than the issues on which, say, Sober focuses–for instance Sober talks a lot about philosophy of probability, which isn’t a concern of Godfrey-Smith’s. Although there is some overlap, of course–for instance Godfrey-Smith talks about the units and levels of selection, a topic also taken up by Sober and others.

        You’re certainly right that Godfrey-Smith’s work is less mathematically-oriented than Sober’s or Brandon’s. I suppose one might say that’s because some of the issues Godfrey-Smith focuses on aren’t ones that (yet?) sufficiently well-defined to be susceptible to mathematical modeling. But I don’t know that’s entirely true–I’m thinking of work like Gunter Wagner’s and Richard Michod’s on evolution of robustness, evolvability, and individuality.

  5. And I guess that I should have been clearer about the way in which I thought they were similar! It’s not just that they identify and address philosophical issues in philosophy of biology (a lot of us do that), but I take Sober, Brandon, and Lloyd to each be, in different ways, trying to provide a more unified understanding and framework for evolutionary theory, which I take is part of PGS’s project (the state space that Chris Eliot refers to).

    As for the more specific topics that PGS discusses, my colleague Jim Griesemer (who PGS discusses briefly in his book) had developed a concept of “reproducer” that you might be interested in:

    Griesemer, J. 2000, “The Units of Evolutionary Transition,” Selection 1: 67-80.
    Griesemer, J. 2000, “Development, Culture and the Units of Inheritance,” Philosophy of Science 67 (Proceedings): S348-S368.

    Lots of people have written about robustness, evolvability, and individuality — but not necessarily in books. We’re still a pretty article-oriented field.

    I should also be clear — it’s not as though I think that theoretical work needs to be mathematical in order to be useful. I don’t think that. It’s just puzzling to me when he takes stuff that is already mathematized (e.g., the state space diagram on p. 64) and puts it in a state space. I’m not sure what to do with that, as I said before.

    Anyway, thanks for the book reviews and the discussion! It is likewise interesting to me to hear how philosophy of science looks from a biologist’s perspective.

  6. This was really interesting – the Chitty book has long stayed with me (and I’ve always been interested in writing more about it). I read it so long ago, I don’t recall much of the science about the population biology, but what I recall is his take-home message about his role in the scientific community. He emphasized (or at least, as I recall) that his contribution was to a broader group of researchers that were working to push the sphere of knowledge out in a variety of directions. Even if he, as an individual, wasn’t broadly famous for a specific thing — his work as part of a movement was valuable. He made a really good case for the value of incremental scientific research and how the many are more valuable and important than the few. And that when someone gets credit for a big idea and discovery, that’s build not just on the work of historic giants, but also happens only because of the peers too. In science, if we’re contributing, and those contributions influence the thinking of others, then it matters. It was nice to read about an established senior scientist look back at his body of work and see value and triumph in the midst of what (he regarded as) a series of failures.

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