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What is unique about Ecology? (and perhaps some reasons why it is questioned as a “rigorous science”). Results from experiments are frequently non-repeatable.

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What is unique about Ecology?

(and perhaps some reasons why it is questioned as a “rigorous science”)

  • Results from experiments are frequently non-repeatable
  • Focus on the observable (intermediate) scale – makes everyone an expert - even though some critical features are often unmeasurable.
  • Extremely interdisciplinary – allows a lot of disciplines to claim they “do ecology”
  • Importance of history (and contingency)

Unique challenges of Ecological Research

Conducting repeatable experiments is difficult in ecology…

Melvin T. Tyree (1983) noted while conducting experiments in the field that “progress was rather slow because weather conditions could not be arranged to meet experimental requirements”

even physicists cannot describe the world completely

Complexity of intermediate scales

Even physicists cannot describe the world completely
  • Richard Feynman suggested that very little of “the world we live in” can currently be captured with mathematics and physics. He gave the example of turbulence which cannot be predicted from fundamental properties of fluids.

Physics (with all its fundamental laws) fails in predictive

capability in the same domain in which most ecological

studies are conducted

Nearly all physicists accept the goal of a “theory of everything”, and they may well achieve that goal if “everything” is understood to mean all of the physical phenomena that occur at subatomic and cosmological scales. Less clear, however, is whether any such theory could also encompass emergent physical phenomena at intermediate scales, where we live.

J. Harte (2004) Ecology 85: 1792-1794.

The weather!


Contingency and history in biology and ecology

What does contingent mean?

Subject to chance or unseen effects

Dependent on or conditioned by something else

“If physicists had to model electrons that behaved differently when they were hungry, they would probably be not much ahead of ecologists…” Ch. A.S. Hall (1988)

Importance of historical contingency Many examples of the past influencing the present and future in ecology

Evolutionary Contingency Thesis (Beatty 1995): all biology represents the contingent products of evolution. This make ecology (& biology) unique and immutable laws less likely.


How have expectations of ecologists changed?

Expectations of themselves….

Expectations of the public…


Some History…

Early optimism for Ecology (1962)

We may reasonably expect to have eventually a complete theory for ecology that will not only provide a guide for the practical solution of land utilization, pest eradication, and exploitation problems, but will also permit us to start with an initial set of conditions on earth’s surface and construct a model that will incorporate genetics and ecology in such a way as to explain the past and also predict the future of evolution on earth.

-- Slobodkin 1962


Later, recognition of the limitations of our field… (1989)

Much of ecology consists of making observations and then deriving plausible explanations for the observations. Because alternative explanations of the observed phenomena frequently are available, the process by which conclusions have been reached is known as “weak inference”.

-- Hairston 1989


Pessimism… (2004)

The first issue of whether community ecology has general laws can be dispensed with quickly… “general laws” of community ecology consist of relatively few fuzzy generalizations…. such generalizations all have exceptions…

Simberloff 2004 (Am Nat 163: 787-799)

A shift in perspective in ecology…


A shift in perspective in ecology…

Global change heading towards the unknown

  • Ecological world today
  • new global drivers of change
  • rapid pace of change

Local change within a backdrop of the known

  • Ecological world in textbooks
  • natural systems in equilibrium
  • local disturbance drives change

A Graduate Student’s Perspective on Careers in Ecology

Anything you observe and record

is new and groundbreaking…

The rules have changed.

Everything old is new again – it’s a brave (and scary) new world… But “we” are really needed.


New instruments & equipment

allow easy & new insights

Index of Fame, Impact &

Potential for getting a Job

Your advisor’s advisor’s time

All low & mid-hanging fruit is GONE…

Your advisor’s time



Stone Age


Ancient History





The Future

Time 


Throughout this class we will read a few standard scientific papers, a few brief (Nature/Science) reports and a lot of opinion/commentary/idea papers (like the first 4). These are supposed to have a high impact in the field.

Throughout your career you will likely spend much more time reading research papers than these opinion/commentary/idea papers. However, these papers are supposed to be idea rich and clearly the authors hoped they would influence the field in a way that another standard research/data paper cannot.

How successful are they?

What do you think the motivation is for such papers?


Last week:

Mayr (1996) – Autonomy of Biology

Elliott and Brook (2007) – Multiple working hypotheses

This week:

Kingsland (2002) – historical challenge of ecology – historical view

Graham and Dayton (2004) – ecological ideas and paradigms


Mayr –

What is the motivation for this paper?

How successful is it?


I find that 'controversies' of whether or not one can reduce biology to the base physical processes that govern it to be rather boring…

I was not aware that there was a debate within the academic community about the merits of Biology in regards to being a "genuine" science...

I felt as if this paper had been written long before 1996, the style of the writing and the ideas presented seemed rather antiquated. Most of the references were from the 60’s and 70’s, only two (besides his own) were from the 90’s.

Overall I find this article silly and somewhat vain. I am failing to understand how labeling Biology as a "genuine science" or not affects it's contributions or value to society. 

I personally think biology is a science, but I'm not sure it must be argued and defined.  Can't we just keep studying biology without disputing it's place among physics and chemistry?


Reading through Mayr's defense of biology as a science, I was struck by the familiarity of the tone of his arguments. They seemed oddly similar to remarks I'd heard before - but where? Why, in the social sciences, of course! Social scientists face daily the kind of criticism that Mayr defends against here. An example: the implication that the social sciences are merely "provinces" of biology. In fact, some argue, the very functioning of our social systems - our ability to even have social systems at all! - is governed entirely by biology, and all social artifacts can therefore be reduced to the biological. Thus, social sciences belong as a sub-designation, somewhere under natural science.

Why must we “defend” our scientific disciplines?