MacArthur on generality in ecology

I just came across this great Robert MacArthur quote on Allen Hurlbert’s website:

Ecological patterns, about which we construct theories, are only interesting if they are repeated. They may be repeated in space or in time, and they may be repeated from species to species. A pattern which has all of these kinds of repetition is of special interest because of its generality, and yet these very general events are only seen by ecologists with rather blurred vision. The very sharp-sighted always find discrepancies and are able to say that there is no generality, only a spectrum of special cases. This diversity of outlook has proved useful in every science, but it is nowhere more marked than in ecology.

–Robert MacArthur, 1968

It seems to me that one of the real challenges for us as scientists is to make sure that even if we don’t understand what others see when they look at the ecological world, we need to consider the possibility that they simply have an alternative, and equally valid, perspective. As MacArthur notes, ecology will move forward most rapidly with a diverse set of approaches and perspectives, not by having a single viewpoint dominate how we address ecological research.

One Comment on “MacArthur on generality in ecology

  1. Was MacArthur really asking us “where along the continuum between blurred and sharp vision should we focus?”

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