The history of ecology on Earth-2

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?

24 thoughts on “The history of ecology on Earth-2

  1. What if MacArthur were still with us today? What would he think of the state of the field? Other scientists who have achieved fame in early career go on to have very different trajectories – full time advocacy for conservation (science becomes a side interest), stay the course on similar topics, explore quite quite different topics, etc. I find those choices fascinating to ponder. (Sorry, that’s more questions instead of thought-experiment answers…)

    • Interesting! But hard to answer. If MacArthur’s basic approach to science stayed the same, I think he’d be down on ecology as it’s practiced today–too much modeling, too little theory (

      Whether he’d be a macroecologist is interesting to ponder. Jim Brown founded macroecology as an explicit attempt to return to what Jim saw as MacArthur-style science. Identify a general pattern, come up with a simple model to explain it. But I’m not so sure. MacArthur’s papers do start from or contain plenty of observations, but few if any of MacArthur’s papers start from (or even mention) general *patterns*. (EDIT: this last remark of mine is wrong; see Brian’s reply below. Clearly my memory is going…). And MacArthur was all about dynamical models, even when he was doing island biogeography, which today might be considered part of macroecology. I don’t get the sense that macroecology as a whole has actually followed MacArthur’s (or Jim Brown’s) lead and placed much emphasis on coming up with simple dynamical models that apply in a rough way to many different systems.

      Rejoinder from Brian in 3…2…1… 🙂

      • Several of his earliest papers (broken stick SAD, body size distribution) were pattern inspired (although he was smart enough to write them as model first, test with data 2nd, but the patterns were already known). MacArthur also had an abiding interest in the latitudinal gradient in diversity with a great, overlooked paper on that topic. The model is simplistic and not dynamical at all.

        You can agree or disagree with the argument MacArthur would have become a macroecologist because of patterns. But given his deathbed book was titled Geographical Ecology it would be hard to argue that he wasn’t experiencing a turn to large scale ecology a few decades ahead of everybody else.

        In fact my counterfactual to Mark’s question if he had lived longer is that macroecology would have arrived earlier and possibly looked different.

      • ” But given his deathbed book was titled Geographical Ecology it would be hard to argue that he wasn’t experiencing a turn to large scale ecology a few decades ahead of everybody else.”

        Good point (that I’m kicking myself not to have thought of!). Of course, not everything in Geographical Ecology would fall under the heading of macroecology today. But that’s quibbling.

        Ok, now that you’ve pointed it out, I think that’s a quite plausible answer to Mark’s counterfactual. If MacArthur lives, he invents macroecology.

    • One way to try to get at your question is to look at how the research interests of MacArthur’s contemporaries did or didn’t change over the years. Richard Levins for instance never stopped building simple theoretical models. E. O. Wilson went into sociobiology and then became more of a public intellectual and public face of conservation. Michael Rosenzweig did optimal habitat selection for a while (very MacArthurian), but subsequently turned his attention to various problems and also wrote a book on diversity patterns ( And there are others of course–.

      So, a range of different paths. But not an unlimited range. Unless I’m forgetting someone (quite possible!), nobody went into exclusively system-specific applied work.

      • Not unlimited, and maybe not “system-specific applied work”, unless the system is “humans and the stuff they do to the planet”: Wilson, Ehrlich, and Diamond come to mind as a common enough career path on that topic to be notable (a bit of Levins there too maybe?). I have a vague memory that the preface of Weiher & Keddy’s “Ecological assembly rules” book was supposed to be written by Jared Diamond, who for some reason didn’t in the end do it (which I interpret as just not being interested enough to take the two days to do it). That’s what I wonder about someone like MacArthur – would he pay attention to something like the neutral-niche debate, or just find it not even worth his time to ponder?

      • Very interesting question. On reflection, I think you’re right that there’s a fairly clear-cut distinction between people who keep thinking about “conventional science” their whole careers, and people who move on to become public intellectuals who think about “bigger picture” stuff. Wilson, Ehrlich, and Diamond are all in the latter group. People like Tom Schoener, Michael Rosenzweig, and Jim Brown are in the former group. Not that folks in the latter group don’t ever write or talk about bigger picture stuff–they do. And not that folks in the former group stop doing conventional science entirely–they often don’t. But still, I think it’s a pretty clear-cut distinction.

        Not that those are the only two possible career paths for “ecologists who became prominent in the field in the 1960s or early 70s”. Bob May provides a third model.

        I have no idea which direction MacArthur would’ve gone if he’d lived. Given that he was at Princeton and had close friends and collaborators at Harvard, I guess maybe he might’ve gone the same route as Wilson? Then again, there are plenty of EEB folks at Ivy League institutions who don’t go that route. Peter and Rosemary Grant have done “conventional science” their entire careers, for instance. So you can’t assume that just because someone’s at an Ivy League uni and hangs out with people who become public intellectuals that he too will become a public intellectual.

        Perhaps Michael Rosenzweig or someone else who actually knew MacArthur will chime in on this thread and improve on our idle speculations!

  2. Opinions on your questions:
    #1 and #2 – neutral theory was going to happen and produce the same fury followed by fizzle regardless of who/when it launched. The same thing happened in evolution. Personally I think it would have been more effective if it launched from either Caswell or Bell though. They were both more intellectually up front about it being a null model and didn’t try to claim it was the deep explanation of everything.

    #3 – I’m going to go with the individual impact answer for if MacArthur had died younger. I’m not sure community ecology would have gone the same path without him. That is partly a function of the times. I don’t think MacArthur could resteer an entire field today. But I think the simple model approach would have held much less sway (e.g. would May have been as influential if MacArthur hadn’t paved the way).

    #4 – no idea how ecosystem science would have evolved without LIndeman

    #5 – BEF would have happened anyway.

    #6 – the field of ecology would be much more stuck in the doldrums – special casing its way without NCEAS. NCEAS changed the way ecology was done and for the better.

  3. Starting a new thread to continue an old one…

    Brian, can you speculate further on how macroecology might’ve been different had MacArthur lived and gone on to found it in the 70s? I ask in part because, as you note, MacArthur was very much a “hypothesis first” guy rather than a “data first” guy ( To the point where he seems to have seen weak tests of hypotheses as almost a virtue, because premature tests risk killing off promising hypotheses too early. So I’d guess that “MacArthurian” macroecology would have involved a lot of hypothesis development based on simple theoretical models, accompanied by rather weak tests of those models with the data available at the time. How long do you think that research program could’ve proceeded before running into some sort of backlash? In community ecology, that approach (well, one version of that approach) had a run of only a decade or so before it ran into a serious backlash (the “null model wars”). And what form would the backlash against MacArthurian macroecology have taken? Would MacArthur-founded macroecology have become a domain of primarily theoretical speculation until meta-analysis and NCEAS came along in the mid-90s and macroecologists turned en masse to descriptive empiricism?

    • I’m not totally sold on the purely hypothesis first approach. He was a naturalist and anecdotally most of questions came while in the field, many of them while stuck in the army and bored. From your link “He [MacArthur] later told G. Lark (personal communication) that a good test for an ecologist was to walk with the person through a field and see how many questions he asked”

      I think the hypothesis driven approach was a presentation style. Not saying that is trivial. But induction was clearly part of his scientific process too.

      That said, I think you could look at four of his papers that were most macroecological.
      1) Broken stick SAD (1957, 1960) – the model he developed is statistical and static (although in his 1960 paper he did draw linkages to population dynamics, but they weren’t central)
      2) Body size distribution (Hutchinson & MacArthur 1959) – model is an entirely static and probabilistc model of combinations of tiles as the grain size perceived by animals increases with body size
      3) TIBG (1963, 1967 book) – dynamic model but also a significant stochastic model for extinction
      4) Latitudinal gradient of diversity (1969, 1970 book ch 7 especially pages 170+) – static model of niche packing – necessary relationships between niche width, resource width, niche overlap, richness all imagining niche as a one dimensional continuous axis.
      4a) THe foliage height diversity/species diversity correlation (MacArthur and MacArthur 1961) – hard to imagine a more macroecological study – purely correlational, no mechanistic or reductionist model. Just an attempt to devise and operationalize a simple metric of resource niche breadth availability.

      So a few thoughts:
      a) recognizing that #3 was originally species area relationships he hit on four of probably the half dozen or so major topics of macroecology in his career
      b) he was more than ready to abandon population dynamics when it served his purpose (only 1 of the 4 models (#3) is basic on differential equations and that is only 1/2 population centered)
      c) many of his models are statistical/stochastic and often static and often based on spatial metaphors (literal in the body size, metaphorical in the niche packing arguments of #1 and #4)

      So I don’t think its much of a guess but rather extrapolation what MacArthurian macrecology would look like. Start with a known pattern. Develop a simple model. Write it up as simple model (e.g. reduce niche to a one dimensional axis, grain size an animal experiences to the # of tiles), approximate/weak test with data and a claim of generality due to simple nature of model.

      I cannot imagine he would have been a fan of the NCEAS meta-analysis without theory approach. But many macroecologists have been.

      I’m pretty sure he would have embraced microcosm experiments. He uses several (e.g. Tribolium) in his book. He was just big on the real-world as a source of ideas. While he clearly favored birds as his personal preference, he was open to all organisms.

      On the other hand, I am very unsure what he would have made of big data (e.g. Breeding Bird Survey). On the one hand he was very field (“real-world”) oriented. And his application of data to models was very casual. Yet it has proved such a powerful tool it is hard to imagine a quantitatively engaged person ignoring big data. Very much on the fence on this.

      The first chapter of his book was on climate. As in so many other things he was arguably ahead of his time in the climate-ecology link.

      And to end I will quote the opening sentences of his book: “To do science is to search for repeated patterns, not simply to accumulate facts, and to do the science of geographical ecology is to search for patterns of plant and animal life that can be put on a map. The person best equipped to do this is the naturalist who loves to note changes in [the environment ….] But not all naturalists want to do science; many take refuge in natures’ complexity as a justification to oppose any search for patterns”

  4. Thinking about how I found my interest in ecology/evolution:

    1.Spielberg doesn’t direct Jurassic Park or Jaws.
    2.David Attenborough retired when he was 65.

    Just wonder how that would perhaps reduce the number of people wanting to go into ecology/conservation, or even just the exposure of the field to the more general public.

    • “How does paleontology change if Spielberg never makes Jurassic Park?” is a very interesting counterfactual! My paleontological colleagues tell me that movie inspired a bunch of people to go into paleontology.

    • Or if Attenborough’s landmark Life on Earth series had contained any messages about conservation and loss of biodiversity? I’ve thought about this a lot – the series did a huge amount to inspire the generation of biologists who grew up in the 70s (myself included). But there was no sense of the changes we were bringing about to that Life on Earth, despite the fact that conservation organisations had been talking about this for decades.

  5. Nice idea for a post to distract me from writing my book 🙂 OK, continuing into evolution territory, what if Charles Darwin had been able to visit Tenerife* and the other Canary Islands in 1832 and see examples of adaptive radiation several years earlier than he did? Perhaps nothing as spectacular as the Galapagos Finches, but he’d certainly have seen the Gallotia lizards, plus plant and insect radiations. He would also have seen birds that he was familiar with from Britain using a wider range of habitats, something that David Lack wrote about 130 years later.

    In fact perhaps the insects (and specifically the beetles) would have piqued his interest more given his background in entomology?

    *If anyone’s not familiar with this story see:

    • Hmm. Given how much else Darwin saw on the Beagle voyage, I’m not sure it makes any difference if the Beagle is able to visit the Canaries. Hard to see him putting together his theory any earlier than he actually did, or coming up with a different theory, thanks to a bit of extra data from the Canaries. But I’m guessing you disagree?

      • You may well be right, I don’t have a strong feeling one way or another. But it would be more than 3 years before he visited a comparable oceanic archipelago (the short visit to Cape Verde Islands notwithstanding) and in the Canary Islands he would have been able to build on some of the observations made von Humboldt and others.

    • Hmm, not sure. If someone like MacArthur had been a woman and attained the same prominence, possibly it would’ve changed some attitudes among men in the field and inspired more women to enter the field. But then again, if MacArthur had been a woman it would’ve been much harder for her to attain prominence.

      Ecology at the time didn’t completely lack prominent women of course. Think for instance of E. C. Pielou: That she had to get her start as a self-taught amateur illustrates how hard it would’ve been for MacArthur to rise to prominence as a woman.

  6. #4 on Earth-3:
    What if Arthur G. Tansley had not been appalled by needing to listen to the lamentations of patients during his trial to change careers and become a psychoanalyst (in Vienna, under the tutelage of Sigmund Freud, from 1923 onward)? What if he had never returned to botany and ecology?
    Tansley would not have written his “The Use and Abuse of Ecological Concepts and Terms” in 1937.

    Therein, Tansley had refuted Philips’s conception of ecosystemic units as complex organisms (a rather literal understanding of the organismic metaphor), which was an elaboration of Clements’s likening the succession of an ecological community to the development of an organism.
    Tansley had instead offered the term ecosystem as a term for a system that integrates biotic and aiotic factors into one system of study. This empty concept has later be filled with ecosystem patterns like energy flow and food cycle patterns by, for example, Raymond Lindeman (The Trophic-Dynamic Aspects of Ecology 1942). Lindemann also mentioned the organismic conceptions of Allee and Clements explicitly as well as other alternatives of Thienemann (Lebensgemeinschaft & Lebensraum) or Vernadsky (La Biosphere), but he favoured Tansley’s ecosystem concept.

    Without Tansley proposing the term ecosystem as a name for the unit of biocoenosis and biotope in the first place, Lindemann might instead have worked on with organismic or other conceptions. Who knows what links might have been reinforced by that?

      • AFAIK, Tansley’s career had been blocked by him publishing a manifesto in his journal “The New Phytologist” that so outraged the establishment that he saw no chance to advance in his field of biology within England. His foray into psychology was not unsuccessful, he even published a textbook called “The New Psychology and its Relation to Life.” Everything was “New” with Tansley signifying his opposition to the old guard, I guess. Anyway, when he returned to botany and ecology years later, some old guy was dead and he could have a career after all. More information in: “Shaping Ecology: The Life of Arthur Tansley” by Peter G. Ayres.

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