The previous post referred to a philosophy talk about Robert MacArthur, his observations of feeding warblers, and the competition models which his warbler work helped inspire.The speaker apparently drew some general lessons about the conduct of ecological science from MacArthur’s example.
Maybe I’m just grouchy today, but I have to ask: is it really healthy for ecology, and for those philosophers and historians who study ecology, to place so much weight on so few historical examples? Does the example of Robert MacArthur and his warblers really have anything left to teach us about ecology or how to do it? I mean, I know he was and remains hugely influential, and rightly so. But should he, or any ecologist, really be treated like Shakespeare or the Bible, an inexhaustible source of inspiration and insight? MacArthur has been dead for forty years, and it’s only in the broadest and loosest sense that any ecologist these days actually does “MacArthurian” ecology, however you might define that. Seriously, do you think any journal today would even publish MacArthur’s warbler data? Much less take those data as strong evidence for his competition model? And it’s not just that our standards of evidence are higher today, it’s more profound than that. Ecology today, even as practiced by those who are self-consciously influenced by MacArthur and take him as a role model, is not just “MacArthur, only with better data.” And by that I don’t just mean that today we worry about forces other than competition. For instance, West et al. (1997), hugely influential and co-authored by two ecologists who hold MacArthur in the highest regard, strikes me as very far from the sort of thing Robert MacArthur himself would ever have done. Unless you regard as “MacArthurian” any paper concerned with explaining general patterns, which I really don’t think you should.
In continuing to pay so much attention to MacArthur, we necessarily ignore other voices from ecology’s rich past, we misunderstand our present (including the influence of MacArthur on the present) by viewing it through an outdated lens, and (as Peter Kareiva has argued) we misdirect our future efforts. MacArthur was an important ecologist and in many ways remains a fine role model. But he’s far from the only important ecologist, and far from the only role model. Just for starters, I’d suggest that modern students of ecology can learn at least as much from Gause as they can from MacArthur.
I should emphasize that, not actually having seen the talk Joan saw, I have no idea why MacArthur was chosen as an example and I’m totally not criticizing the talk or the speaker. The subject of the talk just happened to prompt the above thoughts, which otherwise probably would’ve been prompted by something else at some point.
UPDATE: Can’t believe I forgot to mention this in the original post, but I count myself among those who had to get over MacArthur. In grad school, I did a side project on the propagation of indirect effects in food webs, which I ended up publishing in Oikos (Fox and Olsen 2000). This genesis for this project was that I’d read a famous but quite odd paper of MacArthur’s on complexity and stability (MacArthur 1955). I decided that figuring out what the heck MacArthur was talking about and then testing it would make for a good side project. In the end, I think my paper was perfectly fine. But the starting point (“I’m going to identify an interesting question by doing textual exegesis on an old paper of Robert MacArthur’s”) was not one I would ever choose again.
UPDATE #2: Jay Odenbaugh, the philosopher who gave the talk referred to in the previous post, actually has done a lot of interesting-looking work in philosophy of science, as applied in the context of ecology (a field of science that philosophers until recently have not given much attention). As someone who’s always encouraging other ecologists to read more philosophy, I’m embarrassed that I wasn’t already familiar with all of his work (update: especially since I learned that he got his PhD at Calgary, where two of my closest colleagues were on his committee!) I’m looking forward to rectifying that. Interestingly, he is working on a paper on philosophical issues raised by Hubbell’s neutral theory. So Jay is not someone whose attention is drawn only to a limited range of famous historical figures in ecology.
UPDATE #3: Jay Odenbaugh himself has popped up in the comments with some very thoughtful remarks. Thanks for stopping by Jay!