Historically, ecology has been characterized by ongoing vociferous debate about whether mathematical theory has any place in ecology, and if so, what that place is. Sharon Kingsland’s history of population ecology, Modelling Nature, is all about this debate from the founding of ecology up through Robert MacArthur. Charles Elton’s mixed feelings about mathematical modeling exemplify this history. More recently, think of Levin (1975), worrying over what he saw as rampant imprecision in ecologists’ use of mathematical models. Think of Simberloff (1981) vs. Caswell (1988). Think of Robert Peters’ A Critique For Ecology. Think of Scheiner’s (2011) complaint that hypothesis-generating models, and empirical papers based on them, are insufficiently common in ecology. Think of Lindenmayer & Likens’ (2011) opposing complaint (echoing the earlier Dayton & Sala 2001) that mathematical modeling (and meta-analysis and data-mining) is crowding empirical and place-based studies out of the ecological literature (aside: L&L’s complaint is baseless). Think of Greg Dwyer’s complaint on this very blog that too many empirical ecologists are wasting their time trying to understand data generated by nonlinear stochastic processes without the aid of mathematical models. Think of Judy Myers’ counter-complaint that the models too often are untestable (aside: I’m with Greg on that). Finally, think of the recent debate over “theory vs. models” in ecology, which is a debate among mathematically-oriented ecologists as to what sorts of mathematical
theories models thingies ecology needs. Theoretician Bruce Kendall (2015) reviews theory vs. empiricism debates within ecology over the course of his career.
Here’s my question: why don’t you ever see evolutionary biologists having these arguments? And isn’t a sign of the comparative health of their field that they don’t?
As best I can tell, evolutionary biologists are all on the same page when it comes to the role of mathematical theory in their field. As evidenced (for instance) by the fact that their leading journals actually publish mathematical theory whereas leading ecology journals mostly don’t (a state of affairs that many ecologists don’t like.) Ok, you sometimes see complaints in evolutionary biology that we need a new Modern Synthesis because the one we’ve got purportedly omits developmental biology or macroevolution or a “theory of phenotypic form” or whatever (e.g., Pigliucci 2009). But that seems to me like a rather different sort of complaint than the complaints about theory ecologists have been debating since the founding of the field.
It’s telling that the very fine paper by Servedio et al. (2014) on the uses of mathematical models in evolutionary biology cites many criticisms of mathematical modeling–almost none of them by or aimed at evolutionary biologists. The only exceptions are E. O. Wilson’s infamous Wall Street Journal editorial on how great scientists don’t need to know math (which isn’t aimed at evolutionary biologists specifically) and a lonely 1964 paper by Haldane defending models of “beanbag genetics”.
Am I wrong about this? Can anyone point me to any debates within evolutionary biology, since the Modern Synthesis, over the role of mathematical theory in the field? And if not, doesn’t that say something good about evolutionary biology, and bad about ecology?
p.s. It’s also telling that “conceptual models” and “conceptual frameworks” are much more popular in ecology than in evolutionary biology. At least, that’s my impression–is it yours? As someone who thinks that verbal and diagrammatic “models” and “frameworks” are pretty much always useless (at best), I regard their comparative rarity in evolutionary biology as another sign of the comparative health of that field.