Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Too much or too little?

Ecology seems to me like a hodge-podge of different ideas. A result of this (or a manifestation or a cause?) is that we teach and learn ecology as a hodge-podge. The single overarching theme is levels of organization, typically as individuals, populations, communities, ecosystems, landscapes, and global issues, with a generous dose of climate, geology, and geography at the beginning. Applications, statistics, experimental design, and primary literature are scattered throughout.

Quick perusal of two evolution textbooks (Ridley, and Freeman & Herron) showed me that they do not have chapters on "The Physical Environment" or "Biomes" or "The Earth's Climate System." The evolution textbooks instead focus on the math and biology that is universal.

What if a book laid out ecology completely independently of natural history and environment? Would the books look the same? Do we need context? If we lead with context (e.g., a pond, a forest, a grassland) what do we gain, what do we lose?

Why do we lead with the physical environment? Perhaps because we have been ecologists for at least the past 2 my, and we know a lot?

What if we learned B = aM^z and dX/dt = aX - bX^2 before we learned that trees dominate the eastern US, and deep water bodies are dark?

This same question plagues the niche vs. neutral ecology. Evolutionary biologists learned long ago that it is both, in different measure. Ecologists and humans generally are plagued with the notion that niche matters. It makes it hard for us to think outside the box.

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