Strangeness and simplicity in ecology

In Animal Ecology (1927), Charles Elton wrote that

“while ecological work is fascinating to do, it is unbearably dull to read about.”

It is reassuring that things were just as bad 86 years ago. Here, I want to think about why not all ecological work is unbearably dull to read about, and what this means for ecological methods.

To my mind, the two things that make a work interesting are strangeness and simplicity. By strangeness, I mean ideas that come from outside the reader’s experience. For example, to an ecologist of my generation, raised on Begon, Harper and Townsend (1990), Odum’s Fundamentals of Ecology (1971) is strange. It is hard now to imagine the optimistic intellectual climate in which an undergraduate ecology textbook contained a chapter on space flight, and discussed using algae to feed the inhabitants of the kind of mega-city best known from the pages of 2000AD. One of the roots of this strangeness is that Odum’s book is based on a unifying principle (energy flow at the ecosystem level) that is now rather out of fashion. Almost by definition, little contemporary ecology is strange, and if methods papers are interesting, it is usually for other reasons.

By simplicity, I mean that the work’s intellectual framework is the logical consequence of a small number of initial statements (a.k.a. axioms). I do not mean that it is necessarily easy to see how the consequences follow from the axioms, only that they do follow. Some fields are full of simplicity (geometry and linear algebra, for example). In ecology, simplicity is rarer. There are big theories that aim for simplicity, such as Dynamic Energy Budget theory (Kooijman, 2010), the metabolic theory of ecology (Brown et al., 2004), the inertial view of population dynamics (Ginzburg and Colyvan, 2004), and the neutral theory of biodiversity (Hubbell, 2001). Any given ecologist will disagree with at least three out of four of these, but still they are theories that strive for (without necessarily achieving) a clear foundation and internal consistency.

In methods papers, even those with modest theoretical aspirations, simplicity should be almost always achievable. There are only two requirements: a foundation of clearly-stated axioms; and the avoidance of arbitrary choices in progressing from these axioms to a result. Write a simple paper, and reviewers may dislike your axioms, but cannot (unless they do not feel bound by logic) disagree with how you arrived at your results. Write a paper that is not simple, and its fate depends much more on the whims of reviewers. The first option is easier for all concerned.

Matthew Spencer.
Associate Editor, Methods in Ecology and Evolution

Begon, M., Harper, J. L. and Townsend, C. R. (1990). Ecology: individuals, populations and communities. Second edition. Blackwell Scientific, Oxford.
Brown, J. H., Gillooly, J. F., Allen, A. P., Savage, V. M. and West, G. B. (2004). Toward a metabolic theory of ecology. Ecology 85:1771-1789.
Elton, C. (1927). Animal ecology. Reprinted 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Ginzburg, L. R. and Colyvan, M. (2004). Ecological orbits: how planets move and populations grow. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Hubbell, S. P. (2001). The unified neutral theory of biodiversity and biogeography. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Kooijman, S. A. L. M. (2010). Dynamic energy budget theory for metabolic organisation. Third edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Odum, E. P. (1971). Fundamentals of ecology. Third edition. W. B. Saunders, Philadelphia.


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