Scientists are like most people in their attraction to bandwagons. Often this is good, since some parts of any particular science may move more quickly than others, creating a bandwagon for scientists building a career. But sometimes this is detrimental in diverting efforts and money from one aspect of a science to another. All would be fine if the older parts of a science were thoroughly understood, and the new bandwagon opened up the solutions to critical problems.
So what does all this have to do with ecology? Ecology has been one example of a science beset by one bandwagon after another during the past 50 years. Many of these bandwagons were relatively harmless because they started with the promise to solve all problems and ended up contributing a small bit of understanding to the subject as it matured. I am thinking now of energy flow in the 1950s, systems ecology and density dependence in the 1960s, competition theory in the 1970s, and mathematical modelling from the 1980s onward. Other examples could be added to this list. At the moment we have two bandwagons that deserve some discussion – climate change and evolutionary ecology.
Climate change is one of the three most critical problems of our day and so it is understandable that much is written about it. Consequently it appears on all grant and scholarship applications as a relevant field. The problem is twofold. First of all, we should not take weather, the ecological side of climate, as the universal explanation for everything that is changing without considering alternative hypotheses for change. If the geographical distribution of a species is expanding toward the poles, climate change is only one of several possible reasons for this. The factors limiting geographic ranges are multiple and have been studied less well than any ecologist would like. We need to keep in mind that there are other ecological problems out there that are not directly tied in with climate change, and these need to be pursued as well. If you want an example, consider the problem of biological control of invasive species.
Evolutionary ecology is a second bandwagon and I fear it is tilting the entire focus of ecological research. The reason is quite clear – technological advancements in genetic studies. Much of science is driven by technological advances and that is good, but again it should not mean that we ignore other unresolved problems. In particular evolutionary ecology has the great potential to describe the world in great detail without necessarily adding any critical insights. In many cases it is stamp collecting and it reminds me of the saying that “Nero fiddles while Rome burns”. Should we as ecologists be concerned more about the practical problems of our day, or about simply understanding nature? There is no reason of course not to do both, and different individuals have talents in different areas of science. But some ecologists might feel as I do that ecological questions are poorly served by much of evolutionary ecology. I listen to many evolutionary ecologists telling us that their work is solving some ecological question when it is obvious that this is a leap of faith with little substance.
I think we need to ask as ecologists what are the problems we wish to solve, and if we could ever decide on a list of these problems, we could ask where we currently sit in solving these problems. It causes a great focus of the mind to look at a practical problem and ask what ecologists are doing about it. At the moment I am in the Philippines at the International Rice Research Institute, and I am overwhelmed by the ecological questions that interface with sustainable rice cropping in Southeast Asia, of pests and beneficial animals and plants, of migratory birds, of chemical poisons and their impacts on non-target species, the list goes on. The assumption at the moment seems to be that plant breeding and genetics will conquer all problems, but we ought to have a Plan B to look at the community and ecosystem dynamics that centre on a rice paddy, and how that might interface with the changing varieties of rice that are produced. We would be more humble if we moved away from genetic determinism to consider that there are other issues, currently ignored, that only ecologists can solve.
Bandwagons will always occur in science, but we should be careful that not everyone follows the pied pipers of the moment.