Just for fun, let’s speculate about counterfactual histories of ecology! How might the discipline have developed differently over on Earth-2, where things are just slightly altered? What’s the smallest change to ecological history that you think would have the biggest impact on ecology’s subsequent development?
Here are a few opening bids to get your started:
- Imagine if interest in neutral theory took off in response to Caswell (1976) rather than Hubbell (2001). I could certainly imagine that might change Hal Caswell’s career–maybe he ends up doing a whole bunch of neutral theory. But what would the larger consequences be for ecology as a whole? Do the “null model wars” end up getting fought on different terrain? Or is this not a good counterfactual, because we’re not specifying the background conditions that need to hold in order for interest in neutral theory to take off?
- Another, related counterfactual: what if interest in neutral theory had been sparked not by Steve Hubbell’s work, but by Graham Bell’s work that was published around the same time? It’s tempting to say that nothing much would be different, and maybe that’s right. But I’m not sure. One consequence might be that the short-lived mini-bandwagon trying to test neutral theory with species abundance distributions never develops. Bell’s work puts less emphasis on species abundance distributions, at least to my eyes.
- What if Robert MacArthur had died even younger? Say, in 1960, before developing the theory of island biogeography or limiting similarity. This one has me thinking back to Peter Bowler’s speculations about how evolutionary biology would be different if Darwin had died on the Beagle voyage. The big question in both cases is how much a single person ever shapes the course of science. Much as one might wonder whether others around Darwin (particularly Wallace) would’ve “stepped into his shoes” in the event of his early death, one might wonder if members of MacArthur’s circle–E. O. Wilson, Richard Levins, Michael Rosenzweig, et al.–would have “stepped into MacArthur’s shoes”. Leaving the subsequent history more or less unchanged. Bowler, interestingly, thinks that no one could’ve stepped into Darwin’s shoes, and that the long-term history of evolutionary biology wouldn’t have been much changed by Darwin’s early death. Similarly, I doubt MacArthur’s early passing would make a long term difference to ecology. I think the major turn towards global change and applied work happens anyway. But the short-to-medium term effect (say, from the 1960s to mid-90s) would be huge, I think. In particular, if MacArthur never coins limiting similarity, maybe community ecology avoids repeatedly making mistakes and going down blind alleys related to that idea.
- What if Raymond Lindeman hadn’t died young? I don’t know enough about the history of ecosystem ecology to speculate on this counterfactual, but hopefully commenters can chime in.
- What if interest in biodiversity and ecosystem function doesn’t take off in the mid-90s? Like, imagine Tilman & Downing (1994) got rejected by Nature, and Naeem et al. (1994) decided to take John Lawton’s advice and do a climate change experiment in the Ecotron rather than a BEF experiment. BEF never becomes a thing, right? Or does it become a thing anyway? Does the fact of ongoing global species loss (whether or not you call it a “mass extinction”) make it inevitable that at some point ecologists would start to focus in a big way on the ecosystem-level consequences of species loss?
- What if NCEAS was never founded? This is pretty plausible as counterfactuals go, I think, though I’m no expert on its history. Back when it first started up, there were people who thought it was going to be a waste of time and money, becausethere was nothing new to be learned from old data. What if skepticism about the value of NCEAS had prevented it from being founded in the first place? I suspect that interest in meta-analysis, data sharing, and working groups would still have taken off anyway. But what do you think?