…in the last 10 years ecology, specifically macroecology, has produced not one, but at least half a dozen different unified theories of biodiversity. These theories broadly unify ideas of area, abundance and richness to produce from a few underlying principles such seemingly distinct patterns as the species–area curve and the species abundance distribution. With one exception (neutral theory), these unified theories have arrived with relatively little fanfare. Unlike physics, unification has not been heralded as one of the highest achievements in ecology. No doubt this is in part due to certain sociological tendencies in ecology which fail to appreciate theory in general and especially theory that greatly simplifies the natural world (Kingsland 1995; Simberloff 2004).
– Brian McGill (in McGill 2010 published in Ecology Letters)
Earlier this year we featured this great paper by Brian McGill in our first Things you should read post. I was rereading it for a graduate seminar tomorrow and couldn’t help but post this great, beautifully dry, quote.
I think we make things that we like and that we think our friends would like, and we cross our fingers and hope that enough other people like it that we can earn a living. Rather than trying to guess, ‘What is it that the American public wants right now and let’s see if we can give it to them.’
If we embrace the fact that no one can or should ever care about the health of our passions… [Quote]
If we embrace the fact that no one can or should ever care about the health of our passions as much as we do, the practical decisions that help ensure Our Good Thing stays alive can become as “simple” as a handful of proven patterns—work hard, stay awake, fail well, hang with smart people, shed bullshit, say “maybe,” focus on action, and always always commit yourself to a bracing daily mixture of all the courage, honesty, and information you need to do something awesome—discover whatever it’ll take to keep your nose on the side of the ocean where the fresh air lives. This is huge.
– Merlin Mann
A great quote from an interesting article about Future-Proofing Your Passion that includes lots of great advice for young and old scientists alike.
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.
Some years ago, someone wrote a book called “The Seven Laws of Money.” One of the “laws” went something like this: “Do good work and don’t worry about money; it will come along as a side effect.” Whether or not that’s true of money, I don’t know, but in my experience, it’s true of credit for scientific work. Just make sure you keep working at important problems, enjoying a life of science, and don’t worry so much about credit. You will probably get what you deserve — as a side effect.
Nils Nilsson (via Vladimir Lifschitz)