A standard template for a scientific paper is to identify a gap in the literature, and fill it. But, as sociologist Kieran Healy astutely remarked yesterday, the most important papers do the opposite:
Now I’m wondering if this point generalizes.
Many ecology papers seek to synthesize, unify, integrate or draw connections. For instance, what if instead of thinking of ecology and evolution as two separate things that happen on different timescales, we treat them as interconnected things that happen on the same timescale? Viola: eco-evolutionary dynamics! As another example, I’m old enough to remember when one of the big motivations for studying the biodiversity-ecosystem function relationship was to unify community ecology and ecosystem ecology. As a third example, Matthews et al. (2011) called for integration of evolutionary biology and ecosystem ecology. As a fourth example, SESYNC is an entire research center dedicated to synthesizing ecology and the social sciences. I could keep going, and I’m sure you could too. You cannot throw a rock in ecology without hitting an opinion/perspective-type paper seeking to Integrate Things with Other Things. And it’s not just ecology; you could cite similar examples from all scholarly disciplines.
It’s easy to understand why. The burgeoning literature on, well, everything, pushes us to specialize. It takes some conscious effort to push back.
And yet. Is it always the case that the optimal amount of synthesis or integration or or whatever is “more than we currently have”? How come nobody ever writes a paper about how we should separate research on topics P and Q, or stop trying to integrate disciplines X and Y? After all, presumably disciplines exist for a reason! Maybe, just occasionally, the reason why nobody’s working at the interface of X and Y is that X and Y have nothing to do with one another, and so there’s no useful work to be done at their interface.
Ironically, there’s a good example of “de-synthesis” in the greatest scientific synthesis ever: Darwin’s Origin of Species. In Darwin’s day, questions about heredity and questions about development were seen as inextricably linked (at least, that’s my understanding, happy to be corrected!) That is, the question “Why do offspring resemble their parents?” was seen as inextricably linked to the question “How does an embryo develop into an adult?” In the Origin, Darwin de-links these questions, by setting aside heredity. He basically says “We don’t know why offspring resemble their parents, and for my purposes we don’t need to know.”
Another good example of “de-synthesis” that comes to my mind is also from a synthetic book: Mark Vellend’s The Theory of Ecological Communities. As I noted in my review, Mark sets out to synthesize theoretical and empirical work on “horizontal” (i.e. within-trophic level) community ecology. But as a side effect of doing that, he implicitly decouples “horizontal” community ecology from “vertical” community ecology–the bits of community ecology focused on trophic structure, trophic cascades, etc.
A third example that comes to mind is philosopher Gregory Cooper’s book The Science of the Struggle For Existence. In that book, Cooper sets out to define the field of ecology–and ends up settling on a definition that, by his own admission, excludes entire subfields such as ecosystem ecology. (My review is here.)
I’m sorely tempted to generalize from those three examples, and suggest that the only time ecologists (or philosophers of ecology) are ok with de-synthesis is if it’s in the service of synthesis. That is, you’re only allowed to break (or decline to make) connections between concepts or disciplines if it’s in the service of making connections between other concepts or disciplines. So that, on balance, you’re still increasing, or at least not decreasing, the total number of connections in the world.
In the comments, suggest things that ecologists link/synthesize/integrate (or want to), that should actually be delinked/disaggregated/disintegrated.