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.