Suggest topics and participants for the debate at the 2016 ASN meeting in Asilomar! (UPDATED)

Last year the American Society of Naturalists (ASN) held a very successful Oxford-style debate at its meeting in Asilomar, on the determinants of continental-scale patterns in diversity. In the comments on the linked post, Dan Bolnick, an organizer for the next meeting, asked for suggestions for the next debate topic and names of people who’d debate it.

I’m sooooo happy the ASN is doing this again! I was totally bummed to have to miss the first debate, I’m going to do everything I can to make it to the second one. And I bet a lot of you feel the same, so let’s help Dan out with lots of suggestions!

Keep in mind:

  • It should be a scientific topic worth debating–a topic on which smart, informed people disagree in real, serious, interesting ways.
  • It should be a topic of interest to the whole ASN membership, which includes people doing ecology, evolution, and behavior.

The first idea that occurred to me off the top of my head was something on the role of theory in ecology & evolution, or theory vs. models. The stuff we talked about in this post. But there was just an Ignite session on that at the last ESA, which didn’t turn out to be all that debate-y. Maybe in part because we didn’t have the right people? I think the choice of people is really key here. You need people who are willing to take a stand and disagree publicly with each other, but who respect their opponents, and their opponents’ position, enough to engage in a productive exchange of views. On the other hand, I’m sure the format matters to. I’m not sure if an Ignite session is conducive to a debate. Whereas a debate is conductive to a debate.*

Not sure if the inclusive fitness vs. kin selection thing is too acrimonious, narrow, or old hat to be a good idea. Humped vs. non-humped diversity-productivity relationships might be too acrimonious, plus it’s kind of narrow. “Old” vs. “new” conservation is definitely too acrimonious. And before someone suggests it, I think me vs., say, Doug Sheil and David Burslem on the IDH might not be of great interest to evolutionary or behavioral types (plus I don’t know that we actually disagree enough).

How about Brian vs. someone on statistical machismo?

Rees Kassen and Graham Bell vs. somebody who works with sexually-reproducing macroscopic organisms on the genetic basis of adaptation (new mutations vs. standing variation)? Too narrow?

Ooh! “Gene sequencing and genomics are oversold”! Get Mike Travisano and Ruth Shaw to argue for it. Get, um…[thinks for a minute, then decides to throw his own colleagues under the bus] Sean Rogers and Sam Yeaman to argue against it.

UPDATE: In the comments Brian suggests an idea way better than any of mine: “Are species interactions stronger and more specialized in the tropics?” How could I not have thought of that? I bet Angela Moles and Jeff Ollerton would totally be up for arguing for the “no” side, since they’ve already done it on the blog. And I’m sure there’s no shortage of people who disagree with them.

The first ASN debate worked really well in part because it was a cross-field debate. It was a topic on which ecologists and evolutionary biologists have clashing perspectives. Any other ideas for topics like that? Maybe you could find a contrarian ecologist willing to argue that intraspecific variation and eco-evolutionary dynamics are oversold and aren’t that important on ecological timescales, opposed by Dan himself?

Oh, and next time they should totally poll the audience on their views before vs. after the debate to see who ‘won’. 🙂

*Dynamic Ecology: come for the zombie jokes, stay for the blinding flashes of insight!

14 thoughts on “Suggest topics and participants for the debate at the 2016 ASN meeting in Asilomar! (UPDATED)

    • Boy, some people just want to grab their popcorn and watch the sparks fly! 🙂

      That would certainly be of broad interest to ecologists, not sure how much evolutionary biologists would be into it?

  1. Where are we at on group selection is certainly a topic that cuts across EEB. You mentioned the inclusive fitness vs kin selection but perhaps group selection might be enough of a different framing to be productive?

    • Hmm…except that if you broaden it, I think it stops being a debate, more of a symposium. For instance, I’m super-excited about the work coming out of Paul Rainey’s group on evolutionary transitions from unicellularity to mulicellularity. It moves the whole issue forward both conceptually/philosophically and empirically. But it’s not really the sort of stuff you’d debate–there aren’t two opposite sides. Indeed, Rainey’s stuff arguably shows that some longstanding conceptual/philosophical debates on group selection are kind of pointless.

      • It’s mostly a generational divide as best I can tell, so maybe not a good topic for ASN. But there are plenty of people who are still vehement that group selection will occur in nature only under conditions so rare as to be meaningless.

  2. I do not know to what extent the “Disturbance v. Genetics” debate continues in the modern day concerning invasive species. I have always found it intriguing, and thought it might be a good fit for what you seek in cross-disciplinary debate. In a nutshell, the debate concerns whether one trumps the other concerning a species potential for invasiveness. Via my own direct & anecdotal experience, it seems disturbance is key, for in systems undisturbed, many exotics establish but do not become invasive. I feel the debate on the issue is important as it concerns our approaches to managing our lands and waters.

  3. Ideally we’d like something that would be a draw to both ecology and evolution (and perhaps even behavior) attendees.

  4. Machine learning vs mechanistic theory. George Sugihara and Steve Munch vs Florian Hartig and one of any number of people. This may seem like a narrow topic primarily of interest to theoretical population ecologists, but it is a nasty and truly fundamental point of debate to be had in a lot of areas of science.

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