Posted by: Jeremy Fox | July 29, 2011

Fantasy ecology dinner

Thought I’d share the final question I was asked during my doctoral candidacy exam: if you could have dinner with any three deceased ecologists, who would they be and why?

I named Darwin, for obvious reasons, and Gause, for reasons I’ve previously described. Can’t recall who else I named. If asked the question today, I suppose I’d pick George Price, just to get to meet him, even though I don’t know that he’d be the best dinner companion. If I put more value on sociability I’d probably pick John Maynard Smith instead.

Provide your answers in the comments. If you like, you can broaden it to include evolutionary biologists (as I did in picking Price). But no branching out any further. No saying that you’d rather leave the ecologists in their graves and have dinner with Joan of Arc, Socrates, and Abe Lincoln instead. This is an ecology blog, not Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.


  1. A.R. Wallace – I always wanted to hear his side of the story.

    • Good pick (though Wallace did write voluminously, so it’s still possible to read his side of the story…)

  2. What a great question! Immediately I started thinking of people who are still alive. After some deliberation…

    W. Dwight Billings – because of his ideas about plant life in stressful environments and his love for the American west

    Stephen Jay Gould – because of his focus on the processes of evolution and his emphasis of the impact of science on society

    Robert MacArthur – because he displayed a nice balance of theory and empiricism that I aspire to show and he seems like an engaging character

    I think they could get along with one another as well (that is a stipulation of the dinner party, right?). MacArthur’s work on biogeography could lead to some interesting discussions with Gould about the history that created ecological patterns and Billings could chime in to talk about the ecophysiological underpinnings that influenced that process.

    • MacArthur is a strong candidate for my list too (also Fisher and Hamilton). I wouldn’t personally go for Gould, for various reasons, unless I could somehow ensure that we only talked about baseball.

    • Re: thinking of people who are still alive, a couple of years ago a grad student in our program suggested that we invite Stephen Jay Gould in for a seminar. The student was politely informed that this would require a seance…

  3. Gould was delightful company at dinner and we talked about almost everything but evolution, because he seemed interested in everything and not focused on himself. John Maynard Smith seemed to regard dinner conversation as performance art. One was happy to be a spectator. I would choose G. Evelyn Hutchinson for his astounding breadth and gentleness, kindness to mere grad students. Also it would have been fun, had I not been a mgs, to ask him to rate his many students.

    • Good to hear comments from someone in a position to choose guests based on whether they’d actually be fun to converse with.

      I made my choices primarily based on the content of their science. By all accounts Darwin was personable, good-humored, and broadly interested in the affairs of the day, so he’s also a good choice in that respect. But I don’t know what Gause was like, and Price was a rather unusual and difficult personality.

  4. Dame Mariam Rothschild, the parasitologist specializing in fleas, “Imagine Beatrix Potter on amphetamines,” The Times of London. I never had dinner with her but had some marvelous conversations and correspondence where ecology was interwoven with her other interests. Her Fleas, Flukes and Cuckoos with Theresa Clay, is a delightful introduction to parasitology.

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