Ecology and evolution blogs from before there were blogs (UPDATED)

I don’t see academic blogging as some revolutionary new mode of scholarly communication. It’s just a new(ish) way of doing certain things that some academics have always done, such as write in a personal voice about ideas that don’t fit comfortably in traditional peer-reviewed papers. To bolster this view, I’m always on the lookout for examples of “blogs from before there were blogs.”

A colleague recently pointed me to a great example of which I wasn’t previously aware (embarrassingly)*: Leigh Van Valen’s self-published journal Evolutionary Theory. The following passage is from Van Valen’s memorial volume published by the University of Chicago Press:

Van Valen’s research papers tended to be “of enormous scope, genuinely imaginative and strikingly original,” said Jablonski, yet his ideas were often too innovative, too daring to get printed. “It signaled to Leigh that there was a dearth of outlets for such research. So he launched his own.” The paper that introduced the Red Queen hypothesis, rejected by several leading journals, appeared in 1973 on page-1 volume-1 of Evolutionary Theory. It was soon recognized, said Jablonski, as “one of the most important ideas in modern biology.” In 2008, Nature, which had turned down the original study, acknowledged the extraordinary influence of this seminal work, exemplified by numerous follow-up studies confirming Van Valen’s 35-year-old theory. Unpredictable and quirky, Evolutionary Theory soon developed loyal readers. “We used to look forward for each issue,” Jablonski recalled. Delivery was somewhat irregular, and esthetics incidental, but that was consistent with the journal’s motto: “The primacy of content over display.”

Other ecological examples of “ecology and evolution blogs from before there blogs” (or in one case, a non-blog that could’ve been a blog):

  • John Lawton’s mid-90s View From the Park column in Oikos, which remains an inspiration for my own blogging, and I believe for Brian’s as well. (example, and my response)
  • Dan Janzen’s mid-80s Thoughts from the Tropics column in Oikos (example).
  • Bob Holt’s series of essays for the Israel Journal of Ecology a few years ago.

Can you think of other examples of blogs from before there were blogs? Either from ecology and evolution, or other fields? I’m particularly interested in those by and for academics, as opposed to public outreach or policymakers or etc.

In light of the success and influence of blogs from before there were blogs, I’m a little surprised that journals don’t try this sort of thing more often. Ok, I’m sure there aren’t that many people with some pre-existing name recognition who’d want to write an opinion column and who’d be good at it. But there must be a few, surely?** And while there’d be obvious advantages to just doing it as a blog, doing it as a column in a journal would reach a different audience, would be easier to do***, and would be easier to cite.

*Actually, I think I was aware but had forgotten. I have a vague memory as an undergrad of paging through what I thought was a strange and homely-looking journal in the Biology Dept. library. I think it was Evolutionary Theory.

**This relates to something I wonder about. How many ecologists would be good bloggers who aren’t already doing it? To a first approximation, the answer is presumably “none”, because there are no barriers to entry. Anyone who wants to start a blog can easily start one. So presumably the only ecologists who’d be good at blogging but who aren’t already doing it are people who don’t realize that they would be good at it and would find it a rewarding and enjoyable use of their time. Which probably isn’t literally zero people, but probably is very few, since people are mostly pretty good judges of their own abilities and time allocation how best to allocate their own time. (UPDATE: edited for clarity.)

**You’d have to write only one piece/month, too low a frequency to build an audience for a blog.

31 thoughts on “Ecology and evolution blogs from before there were blogs (UPDATED)

  1. My favourite example is Peter Medawar’s “Advice to a Young Scientist” ( I read this in grad school, before anyone had invented the blog. I read it again recently and realized “hey, this is just a blog printed on paper!”. Some of the advice sounds a little bit dated now, but a lot of it is still spot on – especially Medawar’s suggestions about curiosity and about how scientists can and should behave like decent humans.

    Oh, by the way: “since people are mostly pretty good judges of their own abilities and time allocation.”. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha….. 🙂

    • Good suggestion on the Medawar. Which I of course know of, but have never actually read. Need to have a look some time.

      “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha…..”

      Perhaps I should clarify. What I meant is that people are mostly pretty good judges of how they should spend their time.* At least, they’re better judges of this than I would be (which maybe is what I should’ve said in the post). So I’d be overgeneralizing from my own example if I wrote, “Hey, I blog and it’s worked out great for me, why is everyone else not blogging? How come other people don’t know what’s good for them?”

      *They’re often bad at guessing how much time they actually do spend on any given activity, but that’s a different issue.

  2. Not quite ecology, but I’ve always enjoyed James (Jim) Crow’s “Perspectives” pieces in Genetics. Lots of fascinating anecdotes about the founding and founders of population genetics, written by one of the founders himself. One of the most fascinating characters I met during my time at UW-Madison.

  3. There are a number of regular columns in the British Ecological Society’s Bulletin which probably count in this regard and have been published for some years. Perhaps ESA’s bulletin has something similar?

    • Yes, the ESA Bulletin publishes various opinion and instructional pieces that would work as blog posts. But they’re mostly one-offs. I don’t recall anyone having a long-running column in the Bulletin that would work as a blog, though that may just mean my memory is poor.

  4. Evolutionary theory was typed and stapled together. I wouldn’t consider the articles blog-like…they were definitely original research, of the J. Theor. Biol. genre. I don’t remember how or if the articles were reviewed. I suspect Van Valen reviewed everything that wasn’t his! But who reviewed his contributions?

    I would consider the many contributions of science in the New York Review of Books to be blog-like before blogging. Lewontin’s many contributions are classic and have had huge influence on me (I think mostly for the better). But the contributions to evolutionary biology and physics especially in NYRB have been invaluable.

  5. Stephen Jay Gould’s column in Natural History was of course quite blog-like. Aimed at a popular audience, but I’m sure it had many professional and grad student readers too.

    • Ha!

      Thinking about it, I’m not actually sure if Isadore Nabi is “trolling from before there were trolls”. But it certainly had some troll-like features. 🙂

      At the risk of derailing my own thread…now that Isadore Nabi, Gould, Lewontin, and Maynard Smith have all come up in this thread, I’m thinking about how back in the 70s and 80s evolutionary biology was very high in the collective consciousness of both the educated general public and academics outside biology. For instance, last year I heard a talk from a philosopher of science lamenting that philosophy of science in general, and philosophy of biology in particular, were not nearly as prominent as they used to be. The philosopher was musing about possible reasons for this. But it occurs to me that it the 70s and 80s were a unique historical moment characterized by a small number of very prominent, very good proto-bloggers in evolutionary biology: Gould, Lewontin, Dawkins, Maynard Smith, E. O. Wilson. Ok, blog-like writing is far from being all of what they did. But I think there’s something to the idea that the way a field grabs the collective attention of smart people is by having a small number of prominent people who are very good at bloggy writing. Economics today is another example: Krugman, the Freakonomics guys, a handful of others.

  6. On the subject of Van Valen’s Red Queen paper: I very clearly remember reading it as a grad student, because it was so different from what I expected it to be (based on being generally familiar with Red Queen dynamics in host-parasite systems). It’s been a while since I read it, so I bet I’d be surprised again if I reread it now.

  7. Many people (including me) love Lewis Thomas’s books, like Lives of a Cell, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, and The Medusa and the Snail. What fewer people know is that most of these essays originated from a regular series Thomas wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine.

      • Oh, they’re excellent! They’re like Gould’s “This View of Life” series – like Gould, Thomas has a broad, humanistic perspective and feels comfortable talking well outside of biology. Although they’re in a prestigious journal, they could probably just as well fit in NYRB. So if you like the style of the Gould essays, I think you’ll like Thomas.

      • I used to like Gould, but I confess I got down on him when I got to college and realized that his scientific views were often pretty debatable. I still admire him as an essayist, though, but more for the style than the substance.

  8. GE Hutchinson wrote lots of essays in lots of places that probably would have been blogs nowadays. My favourites are some really fun essays for Scientific American.

    • Good one.

      I think Hutchinson may have come up in an old post asking what pre-blog ecologists and evolutionary biologists would’ve made the best bloggers. I think we decided that Thomas Henry Huxley would’ve been a great blogger, but that Darwin would’ve sucked.

  9. People who worked on ants had an intermittent newsletters with various contributors called “Notes from the underground.” The function of that is essentially replaced by Alex Wild’s blog and a couple facebook groups.

    • A primordial group blog!

      Depending on how far you stretch the notion of “blog”, you could consider Ecolog-L to be a group blog (where the “group” is “anyone”).

  10. To answer the question of “How many ecologists would be good bloggers who aren’t already doing it?”, I’d push back and say that I know a lot of people who would be excellent biological bloggers, who could make the time to do it, but who don’t see it as extrinsically valuable. Even if it’s something they’d enjoy doing, it can be hard to justify blogging as a good use of time when you could be researching or teaching or mentoring students or something.

    • Hmm, interesting.

      There’s a tension in your comments, at least it seems like it to me. On the one hand, you say lots of people could make the time to do it. On the other hand, you say it wouldn’t be a good use of their time, compared to other things they could be doing. But if they can make the time to do it, doesn’t that mean that they could do it at no great cost to their existing research/teaching/mentoring? But perhaps I’m slightly misunderstanding.

      “Even if it’s something they’d enjoy doing, it can be hard to justify blogging as a good use of time when you could be researching or teaching or mentoring students or something.”

      Hmm…that makes me wonder if some of the people you know are mistaken about what would be a good use of their time. Take mentoring, for instance. To his own surprise, Brian’s discovered Dynamic Ecology to be a great vehicle for that (

      Of course, if your blogging is going to make an impact, it has to have an audience. Building an audience requires an up-front investment. Lots of really good, substantive posts (at least once/week, I’d say) for months. I can see where that up front investment would seem daunting, and not worthwhile because the payoff to you isn’t certain.

      I’m curious: when you say the folks you know wouldn’t see it as valuable, is that because they’re looking for some very concrete payoff to their career? Like, “I wouldn’t blog unless it would help me write more papers/get more grants/get cited more often/materially increase my chances of a TT job or getting tenure”? Because yeah, if that’s the sort of payoff you’re looking for from your time investments, blogging’s not going to give you that. My experience is that the rewards of blogging are very real, and certainly aren’t limited to “it’s fun”, but they’re not as concrete and easily measurable as “X more grants than I otherwise would’ve gotten”.

      • To be clear: *I* think blogging’s an excellent use of time — I purposely phrased my response more abstractly, to match responses I’ve heard from friends and colleagues.

        I see it as a question of microeconomics. Everyone could use an extra hour a week to do *something*, and I think most people have a pretty good idea of what they’d get out of it if they spent that extra hour/week on tasks that they’re already doing. When you’re proposing that people start a new activity like blogging, where it may not be clear what the benefits are, then I think people may be mis-estimating the marginal gain.

        And I think part of the solution to that is increased awareness of what the academic science blogsphere is! If all of my hypothetical potential bloggers knew about Brian’s mentoring post, for example, then they’d be better able to estimate their marginal gain, i.e., whether or not blogging’s a good idea for them.

        And, yes, I mean some concrete payoff for their career, for a fairly loose definition of “concrete.” A good, popular science blog is totally a line on a CV, and even a not particularly active blogger can still reap many scientific benefits from his or her cyberspace adventures. Blogging, though, is part of the blurry line between “hobby” and “career.” I’m reasonably sure that the set of ecologists who would be excellent amateur cyclists, who aren’t already cycling, is small. Similarly, I’m sure that at my university, where graduate student teaching is not required and where the process of getting a teaching gig has minimal barriers, all the people who are skilled teachers and find teaching intrinsically valuable (or at least worth the going rate) are already teaching. But blogging is less well understood and doesn’t fit into traditional time-allocation categories, and I don’t think there’s yet enough awareness of the benefits of blogging the way there’s awareness of, say, the importance of exercise for your overall well-being or the importance of graduate teaching experience.

      • Well said, I agree with all of it. You’ve prompted me to do a post on this next week.

        As an aside, here’s a possible counterargument to the suggestion that people don’t blog because they’re unclear what the benefits are: people who blogged for a while and then stopped, or mostly stopped. I have an old post noting that in the past few years several established ecology blogs have faded away. And since then, others have done so as well (at least for a sufficiently-extended period that, if they ever do restart, they’ll effectively be starting from scratch). RIP Early Career Ecologists, BioDiverse Perspectives, Biological Posteriors, and others. Ethan White, Jarrett Byrnes, Jeremy Yoder, et al. can hardly be said to be unaware of the benefits of blogging. Presumably, they’d say that their circumstances changed, so that their time was better allocated elsewhere. Presuming that they were right about that (and it’s hard to see grounds to question them), then that suggests that there really aren’t *that* many people who aren’t blogging but who would find it to be a good use of their time. At least not for an indefinite period–maybe there’s a larger number of people who’d find it a good use of their time until some major change in life circumstance (having a child, a long-distance move, getting a first tenure-track job, etc.).

        Of course, there’ve been some new startups, Scientist Sees Squirrel being particularly successful, I think.

  11. I am not in agreement with everything here, but I am glad that you are keeping the evolutionary discussion alive out there, especially in this age of religious fundamentalism – we must keep people focused on the issues that matter! Keep it up!

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