A brief history of ecologists’ disagreements about “generality”, in quotes

One very natural response to my poll from earlier this week on ecologists’ views about generality is, wait, don’t we all seek generality in our own work? After all, every theoretical and empirical paper every ecologist writes has a passage discussing whether/how the results generalize to other circumstances–other sites or times, other species, other models making different assumptions, etc. So isn’t a poll about ecologists’ attitudes towards generality just going to reveal a boringly-high level of agreement? Like asking people whether ice cream is good?



I actually do agree–and the poll results so far confirm–that almost all ecologists care about generality in some sense or other, and pursue generality in their own work using some approach or other. But I also think–and the poll results so far confirm–that there’s substantial variation among ecologists in what specific kinds of generality they seek in their own work, and value most in the work of others. I did the poll to learn more about that variation.

I’m not claiming any special prescience here. I doubt it will surprise anyone familiar with the history of ecology to learn that ecologists disagree a fair bit about exactly what forms of “generality” to seek, and how to seek them. For instance, here are a bunch of quotes about generality from prominent ecologists past and present. Try to find any generalities about them–besides the fact that each disagrees with most of the others!

“To do science is to search for repeated patterns, not simply to accumulate facts.” – Robert MacArthur (1972)

“Unlike population genetics, ecology has no known underlying regularities in its basic processes…” – Leigh Van Valen and Frank Pitelka (1974)

“The very most important thing to me, being a scientist, is to seek out unification.” – John Harte (2014)

“I think of ecology as a library of well-developed case studies.” – Tony Ives (2014)

“General ecological patterns emerge most clearly from this glorious diversity when systems are not too complicated…and at very large scales, when a kind of statistical order emerges from the scrum. The middle ground is a mess.” – John Lawton (1999)

“Community ecology is often perceived as a mess, given the seemingly vast number of processes that can underlie the many patterns of interest, and the apparent uniqueness of each study system. However, at the most general level, patterns in the composition and diversity of species–the subject matter of community ecology–are influenced by only four classes of process: selection, drift, speciation, and dispersal.” – Mark Vellend (2010)

“[T]here are several very general law-like propositions that provide the theoretical basis for most population dynamics models…Some of these foundational principles, like the law of exponential growth, are logically very similar to certain laws of physics” – Peter Turchin (2003)

“[W]e don’t need no stinkin’ laws” – Bob O’Hara (2005)

“These [previous] studies have provided more and better data on a wide range of ecological phenomena. There has not, however, been comparable conceptual progress in organizing and synthesizing existing information, producing mathematical models that are both realistic and general, and developing a body of ecological theory that can account for both the infinite variety and the universal features of organism-environment relationships.” – Jim Brown (1997)

“Our future advances will not be concerned with universal laws, but instead with universal approaches to tackling particular problems.” – Peter Kareiva (1997)

“The multiplicity of models is imposed by the contradictory demands of a complex, heterogeneous nature and a mind that can only cope with a few variables at a time; by the contradictory desiderata of generality, realism, and precision; by the need to understand and also to control; even by the opposing esthetic standards which emphasize the stark simplicity and power of a general theorem as against the richness and diversity of living nature. These conflicts are irreconcilable. Therefore, the alternative approaches even of contending schools are part of a larger mixed strategy.” – Richard Levins (1966)

It is of course possible that these haphazardly-chosen quotes are unrepresentative of the range of views among ecologists more broadly. Maybe it’s only ecologists who write opinion pieces about “generality” who disagree about “generality”! That’s why I took the poll, to find out. 🙂 Look for the results soon.

12 thoughts on “A brief history of ecologists’ disagreements about “generality”, in quotes

  1. I love this question of what generality means to ecologists, and I appreciate that you acknowledge these are “haphazardly” chosen quotes. But one of the perils of haphazard selection is that many voices are inadvertently excluded. For example, where’s the female perspective in this slew of male quotes? Maybe be a little less haphazard next time?

    • Fair point.

      It’s perhaps also worth noting that ecologists who write opinion pieces on whether/how to seek generality in ecology (or on other issues in the conduct of ecological research) disproportionately tend to be men. Even after allowing for the male skew of all authors of ecology papers, and the even stronger male skew several decades ago. At least, that’s my strong impression; I haven’t compiled data on authors of opinion pieces in ecology. Which raises the questions of why that is, and what if anything should or could be done about it. I have a few comments on this in a recent post: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2019/09/05/ask-us-anything-good-vs-bad-provocation/

      • Thanks for your response, Jeremy. Yes, I’m sure that is indeed the case — that most of those opinion pieces have been written by men, such that even non-haphazard quote selection would still be quite male-heavy! A simple acknowledgment of that kind of de facto bias — be it in a list of quotes, on a a syllabus, in a conference program — can be tremendously powerful (and reassuring) for people who are historically underrepresented. “These quotes are haphazardly-chosen, and end up reflecting the disproportionate representation of male voices…” That kind of recognition can go a long ways.

        Thanks for engaging.

  2. I’ll just add Simberloff’s presidential address to the American Naturalist Society (2004)

    “Because of the contingency and complexity of its subject matter, community ecology has few general laws. Laws and models in community ecology are highly contingent, and their domain is
    usually very local. This fact does not mean that community ecology is a weak science; in fact, it is the locus of exciting advances, with growing mechanistic understanding of causes, patterns, and processes. Further, traditional community ecological research, often local, experimental, and reductionist, is crucial in understanding and responding to many environmental problems, including those posed by global changes.”

  3. Perhaps we should read more Feyerabend than Popper in Ecology. He advocated a plurality of methods for scientific research. As he said it ‘Anything goes’.

  4. To generalize a bit (haha): I think this simultaneous seeking generality in different ways, and specializing to particular examples, is something which occurs across all of science, and even in pure mathematics. Freeman Dyson wrote about the “Birds and the Frogs” in mathematics to contrast those who studied general things from those who worked out special cases or examples, but even there he concedes that very few humans neatly fall into one category or another. As you say, we all seek generality or some framework to think about things, but we choose different ways to do this, and we all make use of particulars in different ways. I do think some people are more “problem-solving” types who don’t care as much about any kind of generality, and are just content to explain a given pattern rather than abstracting it, but I think this is rarely the sole motivation for most researchers (or at the very least academic ones).

    I really especially like that quote by Levins. I think I agree that this is a good perspective for dealing with this plurality of approaches to generality.

    • Interesting that you bring up mathematics. My own views on this were heavily shaped by Timothy Gowers’ essay “The two cultures of mathematics” (https://www.dpmms.cam.ac.uk/~wtg10/2cultures.pdf). He pushes back against the common view that one of those two cultures is concerned with discovery of general principles, while the other, purportedly-inferior culture just solves special cases on a case-by-case basis. In fact, says Gowers, both cultures seek generality, just different sorts of generality sought in different ways.

  5. Pingback: Poll results: the many ways ecologists seek generality (and why some are much more popular than others) | Dynamic Ecology

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