Why aren’t ecologists prouder of putting old wine in new bottles?

It’s common in the arts, humanities, and social sciences for thinkers and their ideas and approaches to rise and fall in prominence, repeatedly. And not just for reasons of purely arbitrary fashion (though there is some of that), but in response to external events. Thinkers and ideas are always of their time, but not entirely of their time.* So when times change, previously neglected thinkers and ideas may assume new, or renewed, relevance. And previously-popular thinkers and ideas may come to seem flawed or irrelevant. The history of art and ideas is a sort of reference library that we can and should return to for inspiration and guidance in changing times, a bit like how standing genetic variation allows a population to adapt to changing environments. For instance, here are arguments that, in light of recent political developments, political philosophers ought to reassess the merits of John Rawls and Judith Sklar. In architecture, think of the neo-Gothic revival of the medieval Gothic style. In art, think of the Pre-Raphaelites.

But that attitude is not common in ecology. Nobody in ecology ever says, “It’s time to revisit Charles Elton, whose work is newly relevant”, or “It’s time we got over Robert MacArthur.”** Ecologists call themselves community ecologists or plant ecologists or etc., but nobody calls themselves a Neo-Gauseian.***

Why?

In some cases, maybe that’s because ecology has made real progress that’s rendered previous thinking permanently obsolete. For instance, I think our understanding of the complex interplay of density-dependent and density-independent factors in population dynamics (or deterministic and stochastic factors) has advanced to the point where it will never again be very useful to set them up in opposition, or even as ends of a continuum. And so I don’t think we’re ever going to say, “It’s time we revived the thinking of Andrewartha and Birch.” But I think such cases are exceptions. I don’t think the history of ecology is a story of unidirectional progress on all dimensions, and neither do (most of) you.

But yet, despite that lack of (perceived) unidirectional progress, ecologists working on a topic that previously was addressed decades earlier usually are at pains to distinguish their work from previous work. Nobody wants to be accused of putting old wine in new bottles–and nobody responds to the accusation by saying, “Actually, putting this old wine in a new bottle is a good thing, because times have changed. The wine we’ve been drinking recently has gone bad, and this old wine would go much better with the food everybody’s eating nowadays.”****

For instance, I feel like most key papers on biodiversity and ecosystem function didn’t say “It’s time we revisited the intercropping literature, which dates back at least to the early 19th century, recalling and building on its insights.” And I don’t feel like most papers on eco-evolutionary dynamics are pitched as, “It’s time to revisit and build on the work of Thomas Park, whose insights and approaches are newly relevant in the genomic era.” And much as I admire Gause’s work, none of my microcosm papers are pitched as timely revivals of Gause’s approach. But here’s the thing: it’s not that ecologists are ignorant of, or deliberately ignoring, relevant previous work. Many BEF papers cited the intercropping literature, many eco-evolutionary papers cite Thomas Park, and I’ve cited Gause. It’s just that ecologists don’t play up the fact that they’re revisiting the insights and approaches of previous ecologists. Why not? Is it that ecologists mostly don’t think of themselves as working within an intellectual tradition? Or because they worry that revisiting and reimagining old insights doesn’t count as “novel”? (see also) Or because they share Robert MacArthur’s view that “scholarship” inhibits research? Or something else? You tell me.

Charles Darwin is the exception that proves the rule here. Starting your evolutionary paper or talk by saying that you’re revisiting or testing some idea of Darwin’s is so common that it’s arguably become a bit of a cliche. But passing nods to Darwin mostly either function as superficial packaging, or else as recognition that Darwin’s influence is so deep and pervasive that there’s no escaping it. No evolutionary biologist in at least a century has said, “Times have changed and Darwin’s ideas are once again relevant.” Darwin’s ideas never stop being relevant in evolution, because Darwin’s ideas defined the entire field to such a large extent.

One nice thing about saying “it’s time we revived old idea or approach X” is that it forces you to think explicitly about how our present moment makes that old idea or approach viable again. After all, old idea or approach X presumably was discarded (or never became popular at all) for a reason. So why does that reason no longer apply today? For instance, I feel like the problems with a once-trendy approach in phylogenetic community ecology might’ve been recognized sooner if those arguing for that approach had said “phylogenetic advances mean the time is ripe to revive the idea of limiting similarity”. Because then everyone might’ve recognized sooner that recent advances in phylogeny-building didn’t actually address most of the problems with the idea of limiting similarity. Conversely, back in the mid-90s Jim Brown explicitly argued for reviving the MacArthurian approach to ecology–find a general empirical pattern, then propose a simple theoretical model to explain it–on the grounds that then-recent advances in data availability, and the then-recent advent of NCEAS, would make pattern discovery much easier. That’s an excellent argument, even though it’s debatable whether it panned out or not.

What do you think? Looking forward to your comments, as always.

*If they were entirely of their time, there’d never be any reason to revisit them.

**Well, actually, people do say that last one, but some of those people articulate their reasons much better than others. 🙂 In seriousness, I’d actually be curious to know how many folks involved in the founding of NCEAS and macroecology saw NCEAS+macroecology as Jim Brown did: as a timely revival of the MacArthurian approach to ecology. Because that’s the only case I can think of off the top of my head of an ecologist arguing “Idea/approach X should be revived because times have changed.”

***But now that I’ve coined that term, I’m going to start. 🙂

****That smashing sound you just heard was the wine metaphor being pushed past the breaking point, like a bottle of Champagne at the launch of a ship. 🙂

7 thoughts on “Why aren’t ecologists prouder of putting old wine in new bottles?

      • My interpretation of the first comment (about physics) is that it is often going to be more clear to refer to natural phenomena than schools of thought. Brian makes a good point about the potential value of schools of thought. However, my impression is that in most biological discussions, people refer to phenomena more than thinkers. To cherry-pick an example, consider PCR vs. “Mullis process” or something like that.

        On your school of thought mixing with connections point, I could describe myself as belonging to the Paine school of thought (he was one of my PhD advisors, and I try to do field experiments), but that might confuse people (I don’t work in an intertidal system and my current research doesn’t focus on a keystone species, trophic cascade, or much else of what people would associate with Bob.)

  1. I would also be happy to call myself a neo-Gause-ian. He did a lot of macroecology along with his more famous bottle competition experiments.

    To get back to you big picture question, I think ecology avoids acting like it has schools of thoughts to enhance our self-perception as objective scientists, but I think our field is complex (multi-causal) and confusing enough that we would benefit from being able to talk about our schools of thought as an organizational tool if nothing else.

    • Now I’m curious how common (or rare?) it is for ecologists to self-identify as members of a particular school of thought or other intellectual grouping. For instance, Meghan’s noted that some aquatic ecologists think of themselves as part of the “Wisconsin school” or “Yale school”. But how unusual is that?

      I’m sure a fair number of ecologists self-identify as alumni of their supervisors’ labs. “Morin lab alum” is definitely one aspect of my professional self-identity, and “Smith lab alum” is another. But that’s kind of a mix of “school of thought” with personal and professional connections. Same with those ecologists who self-identify as “LTER scientists”.

  2. It´s not strictly ecology. But isn´t epigenetics basically a neo-lamarckian thing? And I mean the current version of the epigenetics, not the Waddingtonian one. I know epigeneticists who declare themselves neo-lamarckians, kind of jokingly, but nevertheless claiming that his crazy theory with all the giraffes and their necks etc. had a point afterall.

    • Heh, I actually was just wondering whether any current epigeneticists think of themselves as neo-Lamarckians! 🙂

      I don’t really know anything about epigenetics, so I don’t really have anything useful to say about this. But FWIW, my own understanding of Lamarck’s evolutionary thought is that it’s mostly not about inheritance of acquired characters. And that you really have to squint at the bits about inheritance of acquired characters to make them seem like a foreshadowing of modern epigenetics. So modern epigenetics seems to me to be neo-Lamarckian in at most a very superficial way. But there are definitely smart historians who disagree with me on all that, and who do see modern epigenetics (and evo-devo more broadly) as a revival of Lamarckian thought in some non-superficial sense. Peter Bowler is one such historian, I think.

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