#EUMacro and macroecology reaching a self-conscious adolescence

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!

28 thoughts on “#EUMacro and macroecology reaching a self-conscious adolescence

  1. we need not just interchange between EU and US, but Australasia too:I think I’m the only one from Asia (by affiliation, and residence anyway). To bring togeather the complexities means getting global insights, and though there are few macroecologists in Asia, there are in Japan, Australia and S America. The discipline is evolving fast, but to get the subtle nuenced understanding we need, we need insights from complex regions, that help test the validity of our assumptions, and develop more detailed models to understand real world ecological phenomina

      • Great observations! very timely. Next IBS meetings (2016 and 2017) will be in China and Brazil, respectively. Those can be good opportunities to discuss about these greatly needed interchanges. OF course, the IBS has this goal but we can go much further if we actually embrace it as our own individual goal.

    • Agreed, but there is pretty good representation here. The idea behind this conference was to establish strong connections between the BES, GfO and Danish groups. We were very excited when we realised people from 18 different countries had signed up to our little conference. Perhaps this suggests a need for a more regular international conference on macroecology? And a similar group to be established in the US (I believe there are moves afoot…)? Although always a trade-off with not getting too big – I echo Brian’s comments that it is the perfect size 🙂 Anyway, thanks for coming everyone!!!

  2. Interesting to hear that most (?) macroecologists are not as pessimistic as you about the possibility of scaling up. I know there’s a lot of interest in building and parameterizing mechanistic, process-based, multi-species species distribution models right now. I take it there’s interest in similar approaches in other areas of macroecology?

  3. The analogy in the post raises the question of what sort of teenager macroecology is. An emo one that writes morbid poetry? One that just wants to hang out behind the school, smoke weed, and try and fail to do skateboard tricks? One that spends all its time messaging its friends on SnapChat? One that takes a gap year in Thailand before going to Oxford? 🙂

  4. “…increasing focus on variance (the residuals around the line, not just the mean line).”

    Personally, I can’t say enough good about that, autecology notwithstanding! Variance can provide some remarkable insights- especially mechanistically- and deterministically, as Jeremy mentions.

    We didn’t have emos when I was in high school, although we did hang out behind the school & smoke weed, but played frisbee… & our tricks worked!

  5. Thanks Brian, for this thought-provoking piece. I’ve caught myself wondering whether some of the material presented here (including my own) really counts as macroecology. But I don’t think this matters: there’s clearly a critical mass of people who think it’s a useful banner under which to meet and discuss interesting science.

    What does matter, though, is whether we will find a way through the teenage angst and into maturity. Clearly there’s a difference between classical macroecology and the new self-examining form on display at EUMacro. The classical version was unashamedly large in extent and emphasised emergent system-level properties. The meeting was full of examples where a fine-grained/muddy boots/experimental/lab-based approach is required, either as complement or alternative. But the big question, which nobody seemed to ask, is whether it’s possible to figure out which level of organisation the emergent properties become apparent, and below which we can ignore all the autecological details. I think this is the level at which the six processes of macroecology operate, as described in your Purloined Letter* article. Perhaps it’s time for a reprieve?


    • “But the big question, which nobody seemed to ask, is whether it’s possible to figure out which level of organisation the emergent properties become apparent, and below which we can ignore all the autecological details.”

      Broadly speaking, don’t Steven Frank’s ideas answer that question? That is, isn’t the question more or less equivalent to asking “Under what conditions does the central limit theorem or some other ‘statistical attractor’ work?”


      • Thanks Jeremy: I had missed that paper and your post last summer. Broadly speaking, the answer is ‘yes’, but these ideas need translating into a context that is understandable to the majority of empirical macroecologists, who are semi-literate in theory and largely ignorant in philosophy.

    • Your comments make me think about the relationship between community ecology and macroecology. Are we seeing a merging? A bridge building? or are community ecologists just using the macroecology label because its convenient without having changed what their approach is?

      Just tonight at a working dinner we were having this same discussion. Is NutNet macroecology with large extent but very small grain? And if not are all those studies with Gentry plots or even BBS routes really any different? If so, how?

      I did find myself saying that to be macroecology you have to coarsen the grain (fuzz the view?) enough that statistical laws start to take over. I don’t think that was very central to Jim Brown’s take, but I know it was very central to Brian Maurer’s view of the macroecology agenda (analogous to statistical mechanics vs classical mechanics).

      Very in keeping with my adolescent theme! We’re trying to figure out who we’re supposed to be!

      • “or are community ecologists just using the macroecology label because its convenient without having changed what their approach is?

        Just tonight at a working dinner we were having this same discussion. Is NutNet macroecology with large extent but very small grain? And if not are all those studies with Gentry plots or even BBS routes really any different? If so, how?”

        Ooh, good question. And your answer is interesting–that if it doesn’t involve something like statistical mechanics (or statistical attractors, Steven Frank and the MaxEnt folks might say), it’s not macroecology. That point of view would make macroecology a field defined by approach rather than subject matter. Or maybe a field defined by both approach and subject matter. As opposed to a field defined purely by approach (like statistics) or purely by subject matter (like chemistry).

        There’s also an interesting sociological tension here between the need and desire for a field to grow up, and the need to avoid growing up too quickly or growing up into the scientific equivalent of a maladjusted adult. On the one hand, everyone wants macroecology to grow up and figure out what it is. But on the other hand, different people have different visions of what macroecology should grow up to be. And at least for the moment, it’s probably useful for all those visions to get a hearing. Like a teenager trying out different jobs, different role models, different circles of friends, etc. Rather than prematurely kicking some people out because they’re “really” doing community ecology rather than macroecology.

        Your answer also raises an interesting thought: to the extent that interest in macroecology is motivated by a felt need to get away from “small scale” (in some ill-defined sense) community ecology, distributed experiments like NutNet and its increasing number of imitators undermine that motivation. I’ve previously argued that it’s “community ecology all the way down”–that community ecology happens everywhere, all the time. I was making a conceptual point, but experiments like NutNet take that conceptual point and put it into practice. So insofar as people are into macroecology because of what it’s not, namely “small scale” community ecology, well…what happens to macroecology when community ecologists suddenly figure out how to do “large scale” work?

      • This is a great debate. I believe and concur with Brian that you can elucidate process without knowing the mechanism, at least fully. In terms of the “graininess” of the approaches, I take the approach of allowing the data to be your guide. That is to say, one might be able to discern certain processes at one level, but not another and I believe invariably that comes done to the experimental design, protocols and set of test statistics. Thus the fact that you cannot reveal a process at one level does not exclude it from existence, and most likely you have failed to capture sufficient “graininess” because of your approaches.

        This discussion reminds me of a famous quote by Werner Heisenberg: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”

        In the research we conduct at the Edwin James Society, we have focused upon the relationship occurring between biodiversity and community structure. We apparently were able to discern a process wherein evenness served as the driver, community structure the passenger, and cohesion the fuel in the process of community organization and, more specifically, community stratification. However, even though we were able to quantify with apparently high resolution the “organizing energy,” we could make no inferences whatsoever as to what the source of this energy was. Thus, we could say nothing of its inherent properties, but could understand how it modulated community organization.

        While this remains a mystery, eventually someone should be able to devise and experimental scheme to discern just what it is. So I think Brian is on the proper course concerning philosophical approaches.

    • I think there are a number of examples in physics. The law of gravity (F proportional M1*M2/d^2) or the ideal gas law were equations that were highly predictive long before we had processes. In the case of the ideal gas law, explanations are now provided from statistical mechanics. In the case of gravity we still have no real process or mechanism. But it is predictive.

      Just to be clear, I am not opposed to studying processes. I just don’t think it is the only goal, nor does it guarantee to “carry along” other goals if we do figure out processes.

      • The Pope doesn’t seems all that concerned about process either… & Amen for that!!!

        VATICAN CITY (AP) — In a sweeping environmental manifesto aimed at spurring concrete action, Pope Francis called Thursday for a bold cultural revolution to correct what he described as a “structurally perverse” economic system where the rich exploit the poor, turning Earth into an “immense pile of filth.”

    • I agree about not much sign of community ecology in Morin’s book, but I actually think Mittelbach’s book has some macroecology influence. The starting chapter, the “to-be-explained” are all macroecological, and some of the ending chapters start getting into regional pool-local community stuff including neutral theory which is definitely in the intersection of community ecology and macroecology (but I know Peter has macroecology too). Its probably more of a style approach thing than a specific subject. Why I think the two books are different wrt macroecology is another good question to help meditate on what distinguishes macroecology.

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