Recently, I happened across this old post from psychologist Tal Yarkoni, asking how we would even know if we “understand” the brain. His motivation for asking the question is the observation that, if you ask neuroscientists if they understand the brain, they’ll say “no” and emphasize how little they know about the brain. But yet, many thousands of smart people have been studying the brain for over 100 years. Individually and collectively, they’ve learned a lot! Which suggests one of two possibilities. First, that collectively we do understand the brain–but that no one individual understands the brain (or recognizes the existence of our collective understanding). Or, that we will never understand the brain, individually or collectively, because that’s impossible. For instance, because the questions we’re asking about the brain are ill-posed and so don’t have answers, at least not the sort of answers we’re looking for.
Question: is the same true of community ecology? Anecdotally, many community ecologists are always banging on about how complicated and idiosyncratic ecological communities are, how there are so many basic things we don’t know about them, how we can’t predict many of their features with any precision, how we don’t have any good general theory of community ecology, etc. But yet, lots of smart people have been studying what we now call community ecology since before the term “ecology” was coined over a century ago. For instance, substantial chunks of the Origin of Species concern topics that now comprise part of community ecology. And like any community ecologist, I could and do spend many hours telling other people things that I know about community ecology. I teach classes, I write papers, I give research seminars, and so on. So does that mean that, collectively, we already do understand community ecology, even if no individual community ecologist would cop to understanding community ecology? Or does that mean we’ll never feel like we understand community ecology, because it’s not clear what it would even mean to “understand” community ecology, or have a “theory” of community ecology, or etc.?
Note: I personally would actually say that I understand a fair bit about community ecology, and that community ecologists collectively understand even more. Does that make me unusual? Let’s find out! Take the two-question poll below.
Related old posts:
Are there inherently complex ecological phenomena? (aside: that’s one of the first posts I wrote back when I was blogging for Oikos Blog, and remains a personal favorite. Man, I used to be a good blogger.)