Here’s the draft introduction to my book about ecology. Please tear it apart. (UPDATED)

If you’re a very avid reader of this blog, you need to get a life will know that I’m writing a book about ecology. It’s for University of Chicago Press. The working title is “Ecology At Work”, though that’s only one of several candidate titles. Other candidate titles include “Ecology Master Class”, “Re-engineering Ecology”, and the joke titles that I and others tweeted recently.

Anyway, I’m very excited by this new challenge I’ve set myself, and also very nervous that I can pull it off. Which is where you come in. Below the fold is a draft introduction to my book. Please tear it apart.

Ok, don’t just tear it apart; any and all feedback is most welcome. But critical feedback and suggestions for improvement are particularly welcome. If you think the style sucks, or that the book sounds boring, or whatever, you are not doing me any favors unless you tell me that!

Feel free as well to ask me questions about the book, suggest things I should read, etc.

I’ll of course be getting feedback from more traditional sources as well. But every little helps.

Since many readers prefer not to comment, at the end there’s a little poll for you to tell me what you thought.

UPDATE: The comments have already given me some good feedback: it’s not as clear as it should be up front what the book is about and who the target audience is. And for some readers it’s still not totally clear even by the end. So: the book will comprise comparative case studies of what works and what doesn’t in ecological research. It’s not an introductory ecology textbook, it’s not a methods handbook, and it’s not an “ecology grad student skills” manual like How To Do Ecology. If you think of it as “kind of like A Critique For Ecology, but with lots of positive bits to go along with the critical bits and without a single narrow prescription for how to do ecology properly”, you won’t be too far off. The target audience is ecologists and ecology grad students interested in fundamental research.

Introduction: Nobody can agree on what ecology is or how to do it. Good.

Ecology has long been plagued by two linked anxieties: that we don’t know what it is, and we don’t know how to do it.

It may seem preposterous to claim that ecologists worry about what ecology is. Open any ecology textbook, and right in front you’ll see ecology defined as “the study of living organisms and their interactions with one another and their environment”, or words to that effect. Except that, when you read the rest of the textbook to discover what that means, you’ll find a heterogeneous mix of material that puzzles many newcomers to the field (Vellend 2016). How do chapters on levels of hierarchical organization (individual organisms, populations, communities), abstract concepts like food webs, and processes as different as evolution, competition, and energy flow all fit together into a unified whole? The answer to that question might well be “They don’t.” Philosopher of science Gregory Cooper (2003) devoted an entire book to searching for an adequate definition of “ecology”—and settled on a definition that arguably excludes entire subfields!

That ecologists worry that they don’t know how to do ecology might seem equally preposterous. And it is a bit imprecise. Actually, every ecologist thinks he or she knows how to do ecology—and that it’s only other ecologists who don’t. At least, that’s the impression one gets from reading what ecologists have said about how to do ecology. Ecology in the 1960s either made a great leap forward under the influence of Robert MacArthur and his emphasis on discovering and explaining general patterns (Brown 1997), or it made a great leap forward in the 1980s and 90s once it quit focusing on static patterns and started worrying about dynamics (Kareiva 1997). Testing alternative hypotheses in ecology either is possible only rarely (Quinn and Dunham 1983), or often (Loehle 1987). Small-scale field experiments either reveal the mechanisms driving ecological phenomena (Paine 1977), or are of limited use because all the interesting and important phenomena happen on larger spatial scales on which replicated experiments are impossible and on which idiosyncratic local details average out (Brown and Maurer 1989). Ecology’s increasing emphasis on mathematical theory has either increased the field’s rigor and allowed ecologists to ask interesting new questions (Caswell 1988, Scheiner and Willig 2011, Evans et al. 2013, Marquet et al. 2014), or has set ecology back by unmooring it from its foundation in natural history (Simberloff 1981, Dayton and Sala 2001). Meta-analysis either adds immense value by providing an objective statistical summary of the primary literature (Koricheva et al. 2013), or incentivizes “data parasites” to engage in question-free data dredging (Lindenmayer and Likens 2011, 2013). Experiments in artificial and semi-artificial systems such as laboratory microcosms either allow ecologists to obtain unique and valuable data that couldn’t be obtained any other way (Gause 1934, Lawton 1996, Morin 1998, Fox 2011, Drake and Kramer 2012), or are too unrealistic and artifactual to teach us anything about how nature works (Carpenter 1996, Krebs 2015). And so on.

Both anxieties reflect ecology’s development from historically-disparate sources (Kingsland 1995). Ecologists are and always have been heterogeneous in their motivations and goals, and thus in their methods. To read the founders of modern ecology—Tansley, Cowles, Shelford, Forbes, Lotka, Volterra, Gause, Clements, Gleason, Elton, et al.—is to be struck by their differences in terms of the questions they asked and how they went about answering them. Indeed, in the absence of any other information you’d probably be surprised to learn that they all are among the founders of the same scientific field! Those profound differences in motivation, methods, and goals are still with us today. This is very much in contrast with, say, evolutionary biology. The founders of evolutionary biology—Darwin, Wallace, Hooker, Huxley, et al.—largely agreed on what questions to ask and how to go about answering them, even as they sometimes disagreed on which answers were correct. The same could be said of the architects of the Modern Synthesis in evolutionary biology: Fisher, Haldane, Wright, et al.

Proposals to address these two anxieties tend to run to type. One type argues that ecology is, or should be, about discovering universal laws analogous to the laws of physics, or else that ecology is about discovering general principles and empirical regularities that play much the same scientific role as physical laws. To fail to discover the generalities hidden beneath the apparent polyglot variety of living organisms and their environments would condemn ecology to be nothing but a series of unique, unrelated case studies—a mere stamp collection. Stamp collecting isn’t a science. Proposals of this type include MacArthur (1972), Brown (1997), Lawton (1999), Murray (2000), Turchin (2001), Berryman (2003), Colyvan and Ginzburg (2003), O’Hara (2005), Scheiner and Willig (2007), Dodds (2009), and Harte (2015).

A second type of proposal inverts the first, arguing that there are no universal laws or other important generalities to be discovered in ecology, and that attempts to find them are useless at best. Rather, ecology is a science of unique case studies, and that’s a good thing. Successful case studies allow ecologists to predict and control the behavior of specific ecological systems. This is essential if ecology is to comprise more than just empty word games and ungrounded speculation, and if ecology is to be useful for conservation and management. The generality in ecology concerns not ecology itself, but how how ecologists should do ecology. There are universally-applicable methods that ecologists can use to study any particular system. Peters (1991), Schrader-Frechette and McCoy (1993), Kareiva (1997), and Simberloff (2004) are proposals of this type.

My thesis is that both types of proposal are wrong—and right.

The mere fact that those two anxieties—about what ecology is and how to do it—exist at all make it hard to imagine that they could be resolved by either type of proposal. Proposals that ecology is about the search for generalities, and proposals that it’s about applying general methods to specific situations, share the assumptions that ecology is one thing, and that there is one right way to do it. But if there really was one Correct Definition of “ecology” and one Right Way to do it, we’d likely have agreed on it by now. After all, consider the alternative: that there is one Correct Definition of ecology and one Right Way to do it, but for some reason we can’t all agree on it even though we’ve been doing ecology for over a century (ecology as a discipline dates back at least as far as the founding of the British Ecological Society in 1913). I find that alternative both too implausible and too depressing to contemplate. It suggests either that ecology as a field is deeply and permanently dysfunctional despite being comprised of extremely smart and hardworking ecologists, or else that many of those smart, hardworking ecologists are nevertheless deeply and permanently mistaken about how to do ecology. I will instead argue for a far more plausible and happier possibility: that the existence of ongoing disagreement about what ecology is and how to do it suggests that both sides have a point. Both are right in some respects or in some circumstances, and wrong in other respects or circumstances.

Indeed, I would go one step further and argue that ongoing disagreement among ecologists about what ecology is and how to do it is not a sign of the weakness of ecology, but a sign of strength. In my view, the diversity of ecologists’ motivations, goals, expertise, and approaches gives the field a collective vigor it would otherwise lack. A diverse field of ecologists can solve more and a wider range of problems than any single type of ecologist could, and can solve problems that would be intractable to any single type of ecologist or even any collaborative group. Ecologists know that no single living organism can be well-adapted to all environments or perform all ecosystem functions and processes on which life depends, and that for this reason diverse groups of organisms often will function better than less-diverse groups. An analogous argument applies to ecologists themselves. There isn’t just one sort of ecology that’s worth doing—there are several (at least), each of which can best be pursued via a characteristic mixture of complementary approaches. Which is why it’s a good thing that ecology has always been done by ecologists as different as Gause and Clements. Otherwise, much ecology that’s worth doing would go undone.

Which isn’t to say that there is no room for improvement, even great improvement. Ecology is hard. Changes in technology and other factors will create both new opportunities and new challenges for ecological research. And smart and hardworking as ecologists are they aren’t infallible (me very much included!) There’s never any shame in asking, “How are we doing, and could we be doing better?” And no personal criticism of anyone is implied by asking that question.

That question lacks a single, simple answer. There is no infallible, step-by-step recipe for Doing Good Ecology. But nor is it a case of anything goes. There may not be hard and fast rules, but I will argue that there are context-dependent rules of thumb that can be identified via a comparative approach. Researchers on different ecological topics often use the same research approaches. Each research approach has its own characteristic strengths, limitations, and “failure modes” (ways in which it tends to go wrong, when it does go wrong). For instance, ecologists working on many different topics have attempted to infer process from pattern—to infer from observational data the processes that generated those data, and even what data would have been generated had different processes been at work. Any ecologist attempting to infer process from pattern can learn something from other attempts to do so. It is inefficient for ecologists working on different topics to independently reinvent the wheel—and independently rediscover the circumstances in which the wheel is likely to get stuck. Throughout the book, I use a comparative approach to illustrate the characteristic strengths, limitations, and failure modes of different research approaches. The goal is to help ecologists do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.

[Overview of book goes here; I left it out because it’s currently in flux; I’m revising the chapter outline from my original book proposal.]

One inspiration for the book is history and philosophy of science, particularly philosophy of science grounded in actual scientific practice rather than in some hypothetical ideal (e.g., the work of William Wimsatt and Lindley Darden). Philosophy of science is infamous for failing to discover clear-cut, non-obvious, universal rules of good scientific practice. But as philosophers of science have recognized over the past few decades, that just means that doing good science is a matter of making professional judgments as to what questions to ask and how to go about answering them. Such judgments are context-dependent and contestable, and so always leave scope for reasonable disagreement (as any scientist who has ever experienced the peer review system knows!) But nor are those judgments purely subjective or arbitrary, like a preference for tea over coffee. This book is not a philosophy book, but I hope that this book will help readers make better judgments, even though no reader’s judgments will fully agree with my own. It is tremendously important to both science and society that ecologists have good judgment about what questions to ask and how to answer them.

A second inspiration for the book is Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise. It is a popular comparative study of prediction. Silver considers attempts to predict everything from the weather to sporting contests to elections to earthquakes. He concludes that there is no single recipe for successful (or unsuccessful) prediction, because many factors are helpful in some contexts and hindrances in others. Both Silver’s general approach and his conclusions are a model for my proposed work. I too consider a wide range of cases within a circumscribed domain, from which I draw general but context-dependent lessons.

A third inspiration is my blog. Since 2011 I have been blogging about many of the topics covered in this book, first at Oikos Blog and since 2012 at Dynamic Ecology ( When I began blogging, I had no plans to write a book. But having been blogging for several years, I have realized that there are themes to which I keep returning, and that link together many of my posts. My goal in writing this book has been to pull those themes together and weave them together along with new material into a unified body of work. Blogging also has been extremely helpful by providing a forum to “think out loud” and discuss ecology with a wide range of ecologists. The commenters at Dynamic Ecology comprise a larger and more diverse group than I ever could have interacted with via scientific conferences (valuable as those have been to me as well). I have learned a tremendous amount over the years from our commenters, and especially from my blogging colleagues Brian McGill and Meghan Duffy. Plus, I’ve written more than a book’s worth of words on my blog already (probably over 100,000), so writing a book no longer seems as daunting as it once would have.

Writing this sort of book arguably is some combination of hubristic and foolhardy. Why should I—never mind anyone else!—think that I know enough about ecology to offer unasked-for advice on how to do it? That’s a good question, the answer to which has several parts. First, I’m a reasonably successful and experienced ecologist. Any reasonably successful and experienced scientist will have a thoughtful point of view on how to pursue research in their field. So if I’m not much more qualified than the average ecologist to write this sort of book, well, I don’t think I’m any less qualified. Second, as noted above I don’t have any strongly-held view on what exactly ecology is, and I don’t think there’s one right way to do it. That makes me different from at least some of the ecologists who’ve participated most prominently in what I think has become a stale and overly-polarized debate about what ecology is and how to do it. One of my motivations for writing this book is that I don’t recognize myself, or a lot of ecological research I admire, in calls for ecologists to focus on general laws, or in opposing calls for system-specific case studies. I find both those views too extreme. I’m a passionate moderate, to borrow philosopher Susan Haack’s (1998) self-description. Third, as noted above my experience as a blogger gives me some confidence that I have something to say that others will want to read. Longtime readers of Dynamic Ecology will find some of the material in this book familiar. But much of it is new, and all of it is woven together in a way that I believe adds value. A book is a coherent whole in a way a blog can never be. Finally, I’m under no illusions that everyone or even anyone will agree with everything I write (that really would be hubristic and foolhardy). Rather, I hope that readers will find what I have to say to be thought-provoking.

[Thanks to everyone who helped me goes here.]

54 thoughts on “Here’s the draft introduction to my book about ecology. Please tear it apart. (UPDATED)

  1. Jeremy, I really like this. I have a trivial comment and a less trivial one. The trivial one is that I think dating ecology to “at least 1913” really undersells its age. There were people doing things that were clearly ecology long before that. Because I’m too lazy to look stuff up right now, I’ll just cite Darwin’s pasture-mowing experiments. The less trivial comment is that I think perhaps the Intro as written is more of a prologue, and as such might be too long. I got the feeling to some extent that I was being bludgeoned (this began in the “That ecologists worry…” paragraph) rather than drawn in, especially given that the end product isn’t a strongly-built empirical claim but “only” a philosophical stance that there are multiple ways to approach ecology. Having said this – I’m not sure where I’d cut, so perhaps it’s only that I’m reading with an I’m-reading-a-blog-post mindset rather than an I’m-reading-a-book one? It will be interesting to see what other readers think.

    • Re: your trivial comment, I should probably clarify that I meant ecology as a *self-conscious* activity. Because anxiety about what ecology is and how to do it can’t predate people who call themselves “ecologists” doing something they call “ecology”. Activities that we now recognize as ecology but that predate things like the founding of the BES don’t count. But it occurs to me that if takes several sentences to explain what I meant, I should probably rephrase. 🙂

      That less trivial comment is a good one. Rereading this myself this morning it felt a bit repetitive and heavy-handed. But on the other hand my editor liked those first couple of paragraphs. I too will be curious what others think. Wouldn’t be surprised if readers split along lines of seniority, with grad students liking those paragraphs better than full profs who are familiar with the fact that ecologists are always arguing with one another about how to do ecology.

  2. Possible book title: “Ecology: You’re Doing It Wrong!” (Or, for Trump fans: “Ecology: I Alone Can Fix It!”)

    I* tend to write much in the style that you use here, marching logically and linearly from general remarks toward a more specific conclusion about what this book is about. In the absence of a cover, table of contents, etc., I found myself really unsure of the book’s purpose (a new undergrad textbook of basic ecology material that has been Foxified?) until near the end. Can you keep the basic flow of the chapter, but do a bit more foreshadowing to signal that this will be a book about how to do ecology research?

    *not an actual ecologist, and thus not the target audience for this book

    • “Possible book title: “Ecology: You’re Doing It Wrong!” ”

      Actually, no. There will be criticism in the book, but also a lot of positive bits.

      “I found myself really unsure of the book’s purpose…until the end”

      Good comment.

      • I was mostly kidding about the title — but it might work as a deliberately provocative attention-grabbing sort of thing to boost sales and media coverage…

  3. Echoing the comment above, could you tell us what the target audience is? Whether or not even the first paragraph comes across as too much of an “insider” perspective, assuming a fair amount of background knowledge of not only concepts but subfields, depends on who you think will be reading this.

  4. Great reading! Seems a bit long, but the first paragraphs are great for introductory-level ecologists, so the length issue really depends on your intended audience, of which I’m not aware. I’m in-between as far as professional experience is concerned (not fresh from school but not really that senior either), and the initial paragraphs are good and frame the rest in context; they don’t feel like an overkill at all.

    Reading the proposed Into definitely made me very curious about the book to follow! As an applied-ecologist, I look forward to reading your book and immerse myself in more philosophical aspects.

    Very, very minor issue: the word “how” is typed twice in the third-last line above the one-line paragraph. But you might have caught that already.

    Thanks for involving me in your voluntary “peer review”! And BTW, your Intro doesn’t sound hubristic or foolhardy at all.

  5. Hi Jeremy, I must admit that I often read and enjoy your posts but rarely comment on them. I took this opportunity as I am an early career researcher looking to build my writing and editing skills. Assuming this book would be used for an ecology student, I think this is a great start. Having been in their shoes not long ago I think it is important to note that very few students will read anything outside of what is assigned by their professor. With that in mind, it is critical to “lull” and “wow” them right off the bat in order to engage them and to attract as many eyes to these pages as possible.

    Some points to facilitate this:

    1. Try to shorten it up a bit. With long introductions, few people tend to make it all the way to the finish line. (You could most likely eliminate or shorten the inspirations section. I like the plug about your blog but it could surely be done in fewer words.

    2. I really like your organization here and how it flowed from one thought to the next. However, as I was reading I found that I got a little lost in the final paragraph. Here you mention “motivations” and previously you mention “inspirations” (these could surely be combined). Near the end instead of convincing me you are the proper person to be writing this, focus back on your more important points and bring the reader full circle.

    I don’t want to come off as too critical, as I think it is a very good start. Some fine tuning and you will surely hit a home run! Congratulations on the book Jeremy I look forward to reading more updates like this! They make for a great addition to my morning coffee.

    • I’ve been feeling like it’s too long and that the “inspirations” paragraphs could be axed, so thanks for seconding that feeling. 🙂

      I’ve also been wondering if I need the defensive “yes, I’m a perfectly good person to write this book” paragraph, so thanks for nudging me to axe that as well.

      • First, actually like the inspiration paragraphs, but it feels that it would be better of in a prologue (as said before) and not in an introduction. It is always interesting to learn more about the motivation of the people writing a book.

        Second, I agree that the “defensive paragraph” is not best at the end of the introduction, where I also expect the “focus back on your more important points and bring the reader full circle”. Actually, I do not think you need it at all.

        Third, the first paragraphs are a good read, but hard to digest. There is actually so much in it and it was wondering if I had read enough of all this studies to go further into the book or do I need them read before. You can nearly stop after every two-three sentence and think about what you have written. Which is not a bad thing, but maybe a little much for an intro.

        I really like the style of the Intro/Prologue, it reads like a long evening discussion over a glass of wine with J. Fox on what is actually ecology and why should we write a book about it. Thank for positing this.

  6. Good reading. First of all let me admit that I am neither practicing ecologist nor someone who has well read the field. However, I feel the boundary of the subject should be made clear; for example reader should feel that certain aspects of nature can be better studied/understood by adopting this approach. The subject should be shown as integrated in the whole spectrum of organizations with advantages/disadvantages of studying nature at various levels of organizations-philosophy of studying nature at various organizational levels.

    • Good suggestion. Will have to think more about how to achieve that. I am indeed presuming that my audience has some sense of the boundary of the subject of ecology.

      Not sure what you mean by “philosophy of studying nature at various organizational levels”; can you elaborate? Do you mean, e.g., individual organisms vs. populations vs. communities vs. ecosystems? I hope that my book will have something to say to ecologists working at all those levels of organization, though probably the majority of my examples will be from population and community ecology just because those are the levels of organization I know best.

  7. I meant going beyond ecology and setting stage by discussing a bit about interactions ranging from sub-atomic particles to between celestial bodies, and range of interactions between living things. As I feel ecology is about interactions of certain kinds, but something sets these apart from other interactions e.g. linkage to evolution. Sorry I may not be clear.

    • Thanks for this, I understand now. But I’m afraid that’s too far afield for the book I have in mind. Placing ecology in the context of other scientific fields is a task for introductory ecology textbooks. I’ll be writing for a more advanced audience that already has some understanding of how ecology fits in with (or is distinct from) other scientific fields.

  8. Definitely intriguing and makes me want to read more (although as a lagging author myself I have no expectations about when).

    I do hope you’re going to say this side is right about X while the other side is right about Y and take some stands and not just kumbaya everybody is right (which would be the exact opposite of Peter’s Critique). Knowing you and your mode of thinking I’m not too worried!

    I do think like some others said that there might be a benefit to separating a prologue (motivations and background) and an introduction (main argument launching into following detailed chapters).

    I know with my own book I’ve written introductory material (4 chapters) that is way too long as a preliminary. It is so tempting to see a book as a chance to say everything I want to say. But the feedback I’ve gotten is I need to be terse and pull people in. Rereading the introduction to Jim Brown’s Macroecology was inspirational for me on that front. None of which really applies to your own text which doesn’t strike me as too long – more just musing out loud.

    • “I do hope you’re going to say this side is right about X while the other side is right about Y and take some stands and not just kumbaya everybody is right ”

      Don’t worry. 🙂

      “But the feedback I’ve gotten is I need to be terse and pull people in. ”

      That’s a good suggestion. I’m struggling how to deal with it. How do you write a book that draws on examples from across most of ecology, but yet remains accessible to beginning ecology grad students who mostly have no clue who MacArthur was or what macroecology is or what R* theory is or why anyone would care about local-regional richness relationships or etc.? I have a post in the queue for later this week on “all my anxieties about my book”, and this is a big one.

      “Rereading the introduction to Jim Brown’s Macroecology was inspirational for me on that front.”

      As I work on this book, I find I am constantly on the lookout for inspirational material to read. So thanks for the suggestion.

  9. I do not think that your Introduction (or Prologue) is long at all. I would like to see even more. When you say “My thesis is that both types of proposal are wrong—and right.” – do you think that other ecologists said something similar before/you can connect your thesis to? Allen and Hoekstra book Toward a unified ecology comes to my mind – where the dichotomy between generalization and particularization is mainly about scale dependence of ecological processess (and of course there are many many papers about this) (some processes operate at larger scales, like migration or (some) speciation, and may have more likely some generalized component, than those operating at smaller scales. This continuum may ultimately propagate into different schools or ecological subfields (even when these fields – like pop. ecology, macroecology, biogeography… are mostly defined by observational scales rather than by process scales)

    • Thanks. I do need to remind myself of Allen & Hoekstra. But my book won’t really be focusing on scale-dependence.

      I’m not aware of any book-length piece that’s expressed the same combination of views as my book will. But I’m an intellectual magpie, so I suspect my book will overlap partially with lots of previous work.

  10. Sounds like an interesting book. I would add H.T Odum and probably Eugene Odum to the list of ecologists trying to find general laws. H.T. drew a lot from Lotka (another example) with the idea of ecology working like physics. Emergy was an attempt to advance to a more nuanced application of thermodynamics. Papers on this are still being published in Ecological Modelling.

  11. Hi Jeremy, what a great idea! Get feedback from your target audience before things are too advanced. I can say I was excited to get a preview of the book. Reading this definitely made me interested to read the finished product. (I am probably part of your target audience, a trying-to-finish applied ecology PhD student).

    I agree with the other comments that this might have conflated a Preface (a typical place to find the acknowledgements and inspirations) with the Introduction. [correct me if I’m wrong, I think Prologue is reserved for fiction]

    I’m thinking, for a Preface as opposed to an Introduction, I enjoy being stepped through nice and gently given that the following chapters (I can only imagine) will be rich in detail and need my full attention. Something akin to (although ever so slightly more advanced than)…
    …Once upon a time, there were two little plant ecologists, called Clements and Gleason*. They both thought they knew how plant communities worked but their views were very different so no one could agree on who was right. Ecologists, even today, continue to argue about who is right and who is wrong and this book explores arguments about what ecology is and how we do it.….
    …Then go on to the book summary, the inspirations section [Maybe a deliberate “the reason for this book” paragraph somewhere to replace some of the explanation of whether you are the right author to be offering advice, i.e. it’s your book so there’s no reason why you’re not the right author, someone else might be more experienced at ecology-book-writing but they would write a different book] and then acknowledgements . (I enjoyed reading the inspirations section and thought it flowed well and was easy to read.)
    Now with all the niceties are out the way, go hell-for-leather on all the detail in the Introduction proper, in the first paragraphs….

    Good-luck, I hope the book writing process is enjoyable (and a lot less painful than I imagine it to be)!!

    *indicative only…first “story” that popped into my head

  12. It reads well, Jeremy, and made me look forward to reading more, which has to be a good sign. I really liked the contrasting views paragraph (para 3) which gives a strong message about why you’re writing the book. A few thoughts:

    – are food webs really an abstract concept?

    – did the early evolutionists really agree on the right questions to ask? Darwin seemed to be out on a limb with regard to some aspects, e.g. what domesticated animals could tell us, whereas Hooker was as much a biogeographer and taxonomists as anything.

    – is ecology any more diverse than other scientific fields? And how would one even measure that?

    Good luck!

    • “– are food webs really an abstract concept?”
      Well, you need some term for them that distinguishes them from things like levels of organization…

      “– did the early evolutionists really agree on the right questions to ask? ”
      I was waiting for someone to push me on that. 🙂

      “– is ecology any more diverse than other scientific fields? ”
      I’d be happy to be pointed to the extensive literature in which, say, evolutionary biologists wring their hands about how nobody can agree on what evolutionary biology is, and is evolutionary biology about general laws or case studies or what.

      Having said that, I will be taking some inspiration from analogous debates in other fields. For instance, there’s a famous essay on the “two cultures of mathematics” that I’ve linked to before, that talks about “system builders” vs. “problem solvers” and how the latter, contrary to appearances, care about generalities just as they system builders do (just different sorts of generalities). Definitely some echoes there of debates within ecology.

      • “Well, you need some term for them that distinguishes them from things like levels of organization…”

        Perhaps, but I don’t think “abstract” is that term! Here’s one definition of the word: “existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence”. That doesn’t sounds like food webs to me.

        “I’d be happy to be pointed to the extensive literature in which, say, evolutionary biologists wring their hands about how nobody can agree on what evolutionary biology is”

        What about the debates around micro- versus macro-evolution? The role of different types of selection? Is population genetics the study of “evolution” or of diversity? Does taxonomy have to be evolutionary in its classification? Phenetics versus phylogenetics. Is paleontology “geology” or “biology”? Etc. etc. Don;t these also echo debates in ecology?

      • Hmm. Those debates seem to me to be internal to a coherent field, with the possible exception of micro vs. macroevolution. They’re analogous to debates like whether top-down or bottom-up effects are stronger, or whether species interactions are stronger and more specialized in the tropics.

  13. I really love this introduction and how you write stuffs, always keep me reading ’til the end; such easy sentences! I was just a bit disappointed with the end, though. I know diversity is strength. However, I just wish there is some unifying concept to work on because there are A LOT of connected stuffs in ecology. I find a hard time doing literature review because some topics seem related with other topics but they are separate researches with their own question framing and terms. It is difficult to connect them all.

    As a newbie in researching ecological questions, I cannot say much of course, but at least you have an opinion from people who are new to this field.

  14. I’m really looking forward to reading the final product. I would suggest that one of the great strengths of DE from my perspective is that you do not hesitate to clearly state your opinions so that debate in the comments section is often just as informative as the original post. It sounds like your book will do the same (your response to Brian’s post is assuring). But your Intro here is a bit hesitant; the style may not be assertive enough. I hope that you will not worry too much about ruffling feathers. Your blog is widely read and you’ve been at it long enough that I believe that most candid readers will trust your motives.

    • “But your Intro here is a bit hesitant; the style may not be assertive enough.”

      Hmm. I was aiming for “assertive about my moderation” (that’s what I meant by the passing reference to Susan Haack).

      I definitely think that ecologists collectively sometimes make serious mistakes. Sometimes they even make the same serious mistakes repeatedly. I just don’t think that all those mistakes are for a single reason. For instance, I don’t think that all of ecology is or should be about the search for general laws, and I think one way to go astray is to seek them when they aren’t there (or when there’s no reason to expect them to be there). But on the other hand, there are contexts in which searching for general laws makes good sense. So I don’t think all of ecology is or should be about unique, system-specific case studies either.

  15. It promises to be a really interesting book, at least for people like us who spend a lot of time and emotion thinking about ecological research. And fluently written; I particularly liked the sampler of contrasting opinions in para 3. Seems to me the challenge will be for readers to feel satisfied as well as interested.

    Obviously different branches of human knowledge overlap and anastomose all over the place, there aren’t going to be sharp boundaries to what ecology is and what it isn’t. But I think much the same applies to chemistry or physics or physiology or history. So then let me suggest that operationally, you can think of a collection of topics as a discipline when it seems to makes sense to teach them all together in one course to (say) second-year undergrads. Say 26 lectures, 12 prac sessions. And one textbook.

    Textbooks are particularly enlightening, because by looking at how widely they’re adopted, you can get a sense what most profs in most universities have thought made a coherent subject. I don’t have any sales data, but my guess is that since the 1970s, the most influential textbooks at least in the anglo world have been Krebs, Ricklefs and Begon-Harper-Townsend. Most people have thought that the mixture of topics in those made sense as a single discipline. And despite various attempts, there hasn’t yet arisen a fresh textbook that’s become really widely adopted and has redefined the discipline

    So for people who are fretting about what ecology is, a useful thought experiment is to ask what mix of topics you personally would choose, for a textbook for Intro-to-Ecology? Certainly there are hard-to-explain aspects about the mix of topics in Krebs, Ricklefs and Begon-Harper-Townsend. For example, what is all that stuff about energy flow and nutrient cycling doing in the same discipline as population dynamics? Are they linked such that you need to know about one in order to study the other? Try tackling people giving population-dynamic talks at a conference sometime and asking them what the nitrogen mineralization rate is in their system. I’d guess that most of them wouldn’t know what was a realistic number. And for an example in the other direction, none of these texts have much about important pollutants, how their plumes disperse and what’s known about their ecotoxicology, even though that sort of thing accounts for quite a large share of graduate employment and for a good fraction of the citation impact in Thompson-ISI’s “ecology and environment” category.

    Over the decades there have been various moves to set up new configurations – population biology and ecosystem science by way of example. For my part I’m still attracted to the idea of ecology as one discipline, but maybe this is just sentiment. (I was in the first ecology honours class of the first BSc Ecol Sci in Europe). And I’d certainly feel willing to kick some topics out. Behavioural Ecology for example, they’re occupied with explaining behaviour by reference to ecology not the other way round.

    Anyhow, my suggestion in a nutshell is the introductory text as thought experiment. What do you think the coverage should be? Or has the time come to give up on ecology as an overarching discipline, and to treat maybe population dynamics and interaction webs as a distinct subject, with field physiology and biogeography and biogeochemistry separated out? If you can give your personal answer to that question, then I think readers will come away feeling they’ve been offered a definite path forward.

  16. Indeed, I do totally understand you’re not actually writing a textbook. And thanks for the kind pointers.

    But I’m standing by my opinion that if you were willing to put your personal bet on what ought to be in a new textbook, readers will come away feeling more satisfied than if you just say there are many opinions and it depends what you’re interested in.

    • As I said above, I’m certainly going to express my views in the book, including my critical views. I definitely don’t think that anything goes!

      I will continue to mull over the suggestion that the book focus on topics that ought to be in a (hypothetical) new textbook, and discuss how those topics fit together into an integrated whole (well, as integrated as ecology ever can be). That would be a quite different structural choice than the one I’ve (tentatively) made.

    • Jeremy – I am not clear if defining the boundaries of ecology is part of your intention or not. But I do think Mark is right that a textbook is an interesting thought experiment to do that. I for example have always chosen to teach using Molles text because it is much more friendly to macroecology and large-scale ecology. I also like not just that it reaches into evolutionary ecology but the way it does it – very ecology centric. Not to write an ad for Molles but I do think intro textbooks not only make a good thought experiment but have operationally had an outsized influence on how a field defines itself.

      • My intention wasn’t to define the boundaries of ecology, which is perhaps something I should make clearer in the introduction. I don’t think ecology’s boundaries need defining, at least not with any great precision.

        You and the other commenters have convinced me that my background reading for this book should include some ecology textbooks.

        I’m interested to hear that you teach from Molles, and your reasons for doing so. I’d have thought any macroecologist/large-scale ecologist would teach from Ricklefs, since Bob Ricklefs does lots of that sort of ecology. But I haven’t actually looked at Ricklefs (or any other textbook) in yonks, so probably I’m just mistakenly assuming that Ricklefs-the-macroecologist and Ricklefs-the-textbook-author would focus equally heavily on macroecology.

        Have you had a look at Markus Eichhorn’s Natural Systems? Having glanced at it, it looks to me like it places some emphasis on large-scale patterns.

  17. With 74 votes in, poll respondents who think the project sounds great or promising outnumber those who think it sounds unpromising or terrible 81% to 7%. Which is only to be expected, given that anyone who reads this blog probably likes how I think and write. I consider this a pretty optimal poll result–positive enough to be encouraging, but not so positive as to lull me into complacency.

  18. From this intro, as someone deciding whether to commit to the full book, I’d be nervous that it surveys too much of the literature at the expense of presenting interesting arguments (which are as self contained as possible). I like books that start with first principles, even in areas of which I consider myself somewhat of an expert. Personally, I really dislike reading books that are written like long literature reviews, where at the end the reader is left with an interesting reading list but little new foundational understanding or insights without consulting the cited literature. From your blog I think your book will be good and be more in a style that I would like, but from the intro onlone I’m not sure this came accross. It’s quite heavy on the citations for an intro to a book, which I think of as more personal than an intro for a paper – which should of course be heavy on the citations. This intro seems to have around ~40 citations or so. I looked at the intros to a few of my ecology books and they all had around10 references (although some were prefaces or prologues that read more like intros). The above comment is similar to others (make the intro clearer as to what the book is, and who it is for) but perhaps with a slightly different angle. Perhaps one of the issues is that it isn’t exactly clear where this sits in the book. Presumably there is already a preface which is separate. Reading this after a preface probably would yield different responses than starting with this intro first.

    • Cheers for this. Even if it does make my life difficult because it runs counter to other feedback I’ve gotten. 🙂 I don’t think most readers (or me!) will want a book that just comes off as my own idiosyncratic personal opinions. One way to avoid the book coming off that way is to ground it in the literature. Of course, another way would be to start from philosophical “first principles”, but those have a way of coming off as just mere personal preferences (or as thin cover for mere personal preferences), at least to many scientists. Robert Peters for instance based his Critique on what he thought were philosophical first principles. Go look up John Lawton’s review of it–it’s scathing. Now, some of that was probably because Peters’ philosophical first principles were pretty idiosyncratic. But some of it I think was a justified negative reaction to trying to use abstract philosophical principles to decide how to do ecology. I definitely believe in the value of philosophy of science for the practicing scientist. But I try to wear my philosophy of science lightly and filter it through practical, ecology-specific experience.

      One way in which your comments do echo others I’ve received is that there are serious downsides to trying to cover too many examples too superficially. I’ll have some further thoughts on how I plan to deal with that in an upcoming post.

      Some of the citation-heaviness of the intro is because I think a book needs to be better grounded in the literature than a blog. I’ll have more on that in that upcoming post.

      I do plan to go back and re-read the introductions of various ecology books, looking for inspiration.

      Yes, as other commenters have noted, this draft kind of combines a preface and an introduction. There is not currently a separate preface–but now I realize that there should be. So all the preface-y bits of this draft are going to get carved off into a separate preface.

      • “One way in which your comments do echo others I’ve received is that there are serious downsides to trying to cover too many examples too superficially. I’ll have some further thoughts on how I plan to deal with that in an upcoming post.”

        This is mostly what I was trying to get at. As someone who started as a mathematician, I think the way I have been introduced to academic books is very different from most ecologists, and so my views are likely to be a bit contrary to what others prefer here. I didn’t mean that I’d like you to give us your first principles and then built up your own theory of ecology from there with little reference to the literature (although that does sound intriguing :). What I meant is that I hope you are able to provide the first principle assumptions underlaying the ecological theories you discuss, and a good portion of the logic (or empirical evidence) between the principles and the conclusions, so that a reader not familar with the particular branch of the literature can follow along.

        Strking the right balance between breadth and depth I imagine is one of the hardest parts about writing a book. I look forward to reading more about this book. Cheers.

  19. Sounds promising! Agree with the comments about preface vs Intro etc.
    My only other comment is that it might be helpful to state clearly upfront that you are focusing on modern ecology (I think?). It’s not mentioned until the 4th para, and then only indirectly. Given the long history of natural history/philosophy going back to ancient civilisations that provided the foundations for modern ecology, I think it would be useful to clarify this early on.

  20. Hi Jeremy, interesting! I tend to concur with Mark Westoby here. Without going into any textbook format, it may be good to define a little bit more the fields of ecology that you will be dealing with – and those that will be left out. For example, I am not convinced that behavioural ecology, ecotoxicology or biogeochemistry are fields in which ecologists worry too much about what ecology is or how to do it (though I may be wrong). My impression is that most of the debates seem to revolve around community ecology – as often highlighted in this blog! – even if some lean more towards population ecology and other towards ecosystem ecology. Macroecology can be quite controversial as well, e.g. diversity gradients, prediction of responses to climate change etc.

    Additionally, the “we don’t know how to do ecology” anxiety – that is certainly recurring in fields from population to ecosystem ecology – may be partially generated by the societal needs for fast answers (and our incentives to meet these needs through research proposals and such). I wonder how our perception of our science is warped by the fact by the fact that we ecologists still don’t understand well how diversity is maintained at the same time that it is being destroyed on a planetary scale. I don’t know if you’d like to speak about that, but there are quite a few other fields, in physics in particular, where it is clear that scientific understanding is fragmentary yet people don’t seem to bother so much (well, from an outsider’s perspective, no doubt). At least in their talks, astronomers/cosmologists focus on the step-by-step progress of their science rather than the unknowns. I’ve seen talks where they do that remarkably well: they tell you that back in 95′ nobody knew for sure there were extrasolar planets and people disagreed widely on how to identify them. But the way they present the findings, it looks completely normal that they can’t understand the cosmos all at once. On the other end, ecologists seem to feel guilty of not finding “fast enough”: this may generate part of the collective “we don’t know how to do ecology” anxiety.
    But perhaps I’m anticipating on other chapters where you’ll say we have to accept slow progress!

    • Yes, you’re right that the twin anxieties to which I refer are mostly anxieties of population and community ecologists.

      I will only be talking about fundamental ecology, so applied fields like ecotoxicology won’t be covered. And yeah, I probably won’t be talking about (say) biogeochemistry either. I might have a few behavioral examples (e.g., Levy walks of foraging animals as one among many failed attempts to infer process from pattern), but behavior won’t be a primary focus of the book.

      As to whether these two anxieties reflect guilt about the field not progressing fast enough, I don’t know, but I don’t think so. These anxieties predate widespread recognition of environmental crises in the 1960s. And they seem to crop up mostly among fundamental ecologists whose work often lacks any direct application.

  21. I like it! I want to read more, which is a great sign. The length did make it so my hand was starting to freeze as I scrolled through it while reading on my way to work, but I won’t hold that against you. 😉

    And I love the phrase “passionate moderate”! I need to remember it so I can use it myself.

    • Yes, my posts are a leading cause of scrolling-related injuries. Fortunately the book will have pages to turn. 😉

      That the best line is one I stole from somebody else who’s not even a scientist kind of illustrates my modus operandi. 😀

  22. Pingback: All my anxieties about my book, and how I’m dealing with them | Dynamic Ecology

  23. Would love to talk with you personally, Jeremy. I’ve been struggling to get an ecology textbook published for 10 years. This issue of having disparate voices thinking they alone know the essence of ecology means the critics are really harsh. In essence, you’ll need to keep questions open-ended, even while gently directing what you think is the answer. I’ve also tried hard in my book to break myths, expose lapses in logic, and repair omissions compared to popular current texts. The critics don’t like it! The response is mainly, “it will mean I have to change my syllabus.” I have more to say about unknowns that I now know if you would like to talk.

  24. I really more than liked what I have read and even this small piece of text addressed some ambiguities that have been going on and on in myself for years (e.g. how to think about general laws in ecology when you really need to consider some peculiar case studies).
    Although this might indeed be one of the chapters of the book, the everyday issue that comes up for not being sure on what ecology is or how to do it properly is that environmental/ecology consultancy suffers from it. Being an ecologist/environmental consultant, I go through the “imposter syndrome” or the inadequacy of not knowing how to deal with simple management issues just because the theory behind them or the way to address them is too vague…..I am sure I am not the only one going through this: it would be interesting to employ a clearing house mechanism to explore how many environmental impact assessments fail either partially or totally in their predictions and mitigation measures…..There are a few papers addressing this issue but I am not aware of a large-scale attempt.
    Please dedicate a chapter on the ramifications of “what ecology is and how to practise it” for environmental consultants..

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