I have been enjoying my attendance at the EU Macroecology 2015 meeting (a joint effort of the German, BES and Denmark macroecology groups). They have been having a great twitter feed at #EUMacro.
There have been tons of great talks, but I’m not going to turn this into a conference report blog (check out the twitter feed if you want that). Just three quick observations on conference life: 1) More Americans should go to European conferences and vice versa – very good work on both sides of the pond with not enough cross-fertilization of ideas; 2) I love meetings such as this one of about 100 people specialized on my subdiscipline – easily my favorite meetings, 3) Am I the only one who thinks its deeply unfortunate that we seem to have abandoned the tradition of putting citations on slides during talks to acknowledge prior work (even if there is not much time to talk about them)?
What I mostly want to do is build on 3 days of macroecology talks and time with colleagues and use it as an opportunity to reflect on the big picture trajectory of macroecology. Macroecology of course goes back as an effort without the name to the 1800s with von Humboldt and Darwin, through to MacArthur’s 1972 book. But macroecology was launched as a named, defined field in 1989 with Brown & Maurer’s paper. That makes macroecology 26 years old. My impression is that 26 years in the aging of a scientific discipline must equate to about 15 human years which places us squarely in adolescence. In particular, a key feature of adolescence (scientifically documented if your own high schools years are not enough) is acute (often painful) self-consciousness (constantly self examining and hyperaware of how others are perceiving us). This seems to me be what macroecology is doing as well right now.
Don’t get me wrong. While, self-examination can go too far (and be painful), I don’t sense that is what is happening. I think this is probably a natural progression of a field growing up. We’ve moved past those early years of just establishing that we exist in the world. There is no doubt that macroecology went through a phase of existential angst and trying to prove we deserved a seat at the ecology table but that is long gone. And the next stage of learning how to walk and talk certainly seems to have come and gone. We have books, journals, meetings, a common language. We’re really starting to do some impressive things (again see the twitter feed on #EUMacro).
Now we’re adolescents trying to mesh into the world and build a sound foundation for really world changing actions. So we’re very self-examining and aware of how we’re perceived externally. A few examples, I was part of a symposium at INTECOL that was focused on whether macroecology needs to be more process oriented. I was at a confab of theoretical macroecologists organized by John Harte a couple of years ago that concluded macroecology needed be able to deal with dynamics as well as static equilbria, in part motivated by a desire to be relevant to global change. These are recurring themes I’ve heard repeatedly since (and again here at EU Macro). And this year at EU Macro the two opening talks by Nick Isaac and Carsten Rahbek nicely presaged recurring themes in ensuing talks about the need to worry about data quality and the increasing focus on variance (the residuals around the line, not just the mean line). Linking across scales is another common theme which I’ve also seen here. In short a lot of ideas about how we need to do better, reach farther, etc.
Personally, I am less worried about process than many are (but more worried about prediction than most). I am not convinced we will ever be able to link across scales (specifically from populations to continental scales) like other people seem to wish. But I share most of the other goals. At least if kept in balance (too much obsession with data quality and residuals will turn us into field-based autoecologists, but we’re far from that now and I think a little bit of a pendulum swing is a good idea). And I really feel like to come of age we need to start making predictions of changes in response to perturbations. And we probably need to bring paleoecology into the fold to do that (also a theme at this conference). But I’d be very curious to hear what others think.
In short, I think this self-examination is a very natural stage of development. And I think it is pretty productive and on-target so far. In short, I think macroecology is growing up nicely. I can’t wait to see what it does in its mature years!