Hoisted from the comments: on ecological ideas and their champions

Some big ideas in ecology are closely identified with their champions–individuals who were instrumental in developing and pursuing the idea and getting others to pay attention. In an old comment, Jim Grace suggests Grime’s CSR theory and related hump-backed model of diversity-productivity relationships, and Huston’s DEB model, as examples. Ratio dependent predation is closely identified with Roger Arditi and Lev Ginzburg. R* theory is closely identified with Dave Tilman. The metabolic theory of ecology is closely identified with Jim Brown, Brian Enquist, and Geoff West. There are other examples.

Other big ideas aren’t identified with any one individual. For instance, eco-evolutionary dynamics is hot right now, but not because of the efforts of any one individual. Interest in biodiversity and ecosystem function didn’t take off because of a single dedicated champion. And some ideas are identified with one individual champion when perhaps they shouldn’t be. Neutral theory in ecology is widely identified with Steve Hubbell, who certainly has done a lot to develop and promote the idea. But Graham Bell and Hal Caswell developed very similar ideas, that for whatever reason never took off like Hubbell’s. And while the Price equation rightly bears George Price’s name, its currently-growing popularity owes little to Price himself. Price died shortly after publishing the equation that now bears his name, and widespread interest in it didn’t take off until decades later.

Some ideas outgrow and outlive their champions. Evolution by natural selection only took off because a few of Darwin’s friends pushed the idea in a coordinated way. But now there’s an entire self-sustaining field of evolutionary biology that’s far bigger than any one person. I’d say R* theory has outgrown Tilman at this point. After all, it’s in the textbooks now. But conversely, I don’t think, say, ratio dependent predation has outgrown its champions.

Conversely, some ideas die with their champions. Immanuel Velikovsky’s ideas are a good (pseudo-scientific) example.

An intermediate case is an idea that outlives its original champion, but persists mainly through the efforts of former students and postdocs of the original champion. I suspect there’s a continuous gradient from ideas that are only ever taken seriously by a single individual (think Steven Wolfram’s ideas about cellular automata as the foundation of all science), to ideas that start with a single individual but grow far beyond them and their academic “descendants” (think Darwinian evolution).

It’s tempting to infer that, if an idea only persists thanks to the ongoing efforts of a dedicated champion or narrow lineage of champions, then there must be something wrong with the idea. Whereas if lots of people take up the idea independently, that means the idea is a good one. There’s definitely something to that inference. But there are exceptions. Again, recall that when evolution by natural selection was first proposed, it got a foothold thanks to the tireless efforts of a small number of dedicated champions. Does that mean it was a bad idea? Or even that it would’ve been reasonable at the time to dismiss it as a bad idea? Indeed, I suspect that, in order for an idea to get an initial foothold, and thus have a chance of being more widely noticed and taken up, it often needs a dedicated champion (not always, of course). Conversely, just because lots of people take up an idea independently doesn’t necessarily mean the idea is a good one.

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