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.