Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Mark Vellend
During my very first research experience in ecology (mid-1990s), Graham Bell, a famous evolutionary biologist, talked about the forest plants we were studying as if they were essentially just large and slow versions of the algae multiplying rapidly in the highly simplified test tubes of his lab. The other undergraduate field assistants and I (the “Carex crew”) – all of us thrilled to have paid jobs to tromp about in Wild Nature – felt that this perspective sucked all the beauty and wonder out of the forest that we so loved. But it stuck with me.
This is a second guest post expanding upon thoughts and some personal reflections that arose while I wrote a book on community ecology during sabbatical last year. The first post is here, and I couldn’t help noticing that it was given the tag of “New Ideas” by Jeremy. Hmmm…I wonder how we decide whether an idea is “new”? I think the answer has rather important implications for how we judge papers and the scientists that write them. All the top journals want “novelty”, but what is that exactly? And where do ideas come from in the first place?
The core idea underpinning my book is that we can organize the innumerable concepts, theories, and models in community ecology by understanding them as representing different combinations of just four high-level processes: selection, drift, dispersal and speciation. In other words, change in the genetic composition of a population is conceptually the same as change in the species composition of a community, so ecologists can borrow heavily from widely-admired evolutionary theory.
Is that a novel idea? Some say no, and justifiably so. One of the points in Janis Antonovics’ “Ecological geneticist’s creed” states that “The forces maintaining species diversity and genetic diversity are similar”, and similar arguments have been developed to varying degrees by Bob Holt (chapter in this book), Joan Roughgarden, Priyanga Amarasekare, Steve Hubbell, and others. During the time I was a student, Graham Bell and his students conducted a great many experiments on the evolution of various kinds of algae, and, as mentioned above, different forest plant species were then treated as no more than conceptual analogues of algal genotypes. So, no, the idea is not novel.
Or maybe it is. Noting conceptual parallels between two disciplines is one thing, and developing that nugget of an idea into a conceptual framework that greatly simplifies our understanding of an otherwise unruly mountain of models and theories in community ecology is quite another. Is that “novel”? Some seem to think so, while others clearly do not – most notably (and disappointingly for me) the editors of American Naturalist and Ecology Letters, who chose not to send the original paper out for review. Oh well (yes, poor me, we all get rejected I know…but it still feels crappy!).
So, for this one case study, we can provide provisional answers to our two questions. First, novelty is, to a considerable degree at least, in the eye of the beholder. It might be easy enough to identify when someone has clearly but unwittingly re-invented the wheel (i.e., a novelty claim is bogus), but once in a gray zone, reviewer 1 will say “amazing!”, reviewer 2 will say “not a chance”, and the editor (not uncommonly me) will make a judgement call, feeling rather uncomfortable and angsty doing so, but realizing that not all papers can be accepted, someone has to make the call, and it may as well be her/him. Second, ideas come from pondering, re-shaping, and developing those generated by our scientific ancestors. Stepping back from this case study, are there general categories of novelty and the origin of ideas?
I can think of a few possibilities (please chime in with others):
(1) An idea is put forward that is virtually without precedent. I’m not an expert on the history of science, but the popular story of Einstein sitting at a boring desk job, figuring out on his own how the universe works in mysterious ways we could barely imagine, seems like a type specimen for this. Here, the origin of the idea is the brain of a genius, and it represents perhaps the only “true” kind of novelty. Are there any ecological examples of this? (I don’t think Darwin counts.)
(2) An idea with clear precedence and scientific roots counters era-specific conventional wisdom. Island biogeography theory seems like a good example. It seems to be widely and justifiably (in my opinion) admired as a “big idea”, even though someone named Eugene Monroe put forward almost exactly the same idea decades earlier, and the core model is essentially Sewall Wright’s mainland island model of population genetics with the word “species” inserted for “allele”. Hubbell’s neutral theory is another example, and the origin in both cases is other theories/ideas that are molded into something new (in subtle ways or major ways, depending on your point of view).
In terms of empirical studies:
(3) The first clear test of a major theory. Simberloff and Wilson’s experimental test of island biogeography theory using teeny mangrove islands blasted with insecticide comes to mind. What are other good examples? Here, one might think of the new “idea” involving the choice of system, and the origin of the idea seems clearly to be a search for ways to test an existing idea/theory.
(4) The biggest, best test of a major theory. Tilman’s massive biodiversity-ecosystem function experiment in the field comes to mind. Others? Again, to the extent that this constitutes a novel idea, the origin is also clearly traceable to existing theory.
To come full circle, it was humbling for me to realize somewhere during the middle of sabbatical that I was in the process of spending an entire year writing a book based on an idea that was planted in my head 20 years earlier, the very first time I dabbled in ecological research. I suppose the moral of the story would be to always keep your ears and eyes open – you never know from where and when an idea will arise that guides the coming decades of your research life. (That for sure is not a novel idea, but one worth thinking about!)