As I grow older and interact more with doctors, it occurred to me that the two sciences of medicine and ecology have very much in common. That is probably not a very new idea, but it may be worth spending time on looking at the similarities and differences of these two areas of science that impinge on our lives. The key question for both is how do we sort out problems? Ecologists worry about population, community and ecosystem problems that have two distinguishing features. First, the problems are complex and the major finding of this generation of ecologists is to begin to understand and appreciate how complex they are. Second, the major problems that need solving to improve conservation and wildlife management are difficult to study with the classical tools of experimental, manipulative scientific methods. We do what we can to achieve scientific paradigms but there are many loose ends we can only wave our hands about. As an example, take any community or ecosystem under threat of global warming. If we heat up the oceans, many corals will die along with the many animals that depend on them. But not all corals will die, nor will all the fish and invertebrate species, and the ecologists is asked to predict what will happen to this ecosystem under global warming. We may well understand from rigorous laboratory research about temperature tolerances of corals, but to apply this to the real world of corals in oceans undergoing many chemical and physical changes we can only make some approximate guesses. We can argue adaptation, but we do not know the limits or the many possible directions of what we predict will happen.
Now consider the poor physician who must deal with only one species, Homo sapiens, and the many interacting organs in the body, the large number of possible diseases that can affect our well-being, the stresses and strains that we ourselves cause, and the physician must make a judgement of what to do to solve your particular problem. If you have a broken arm, it is simple thankfully. If you have severe headaches or dizziness, many different causes come into play. There is no need to go into details that we all appreciate, but the key point is that physicians must solve problems of health with judgements but typically with no ability to do the kinds of experimental work we can do with mice or rabbits in the laboratory. And the result is that the physician’s judgements may be wrong in some cases, leading possibly to lawyers arguing for damages, and one appreciates that once we leave the world of medical science and enter the world of lawyers, all hope for solutions is near impossible.
There is now some hope that artificial intelligence will solve many of these problems both in ecological science and in medicine, but this belief is based on the premise that we know everything, and the only problem is to find the solutions in some forgotten textbook or scientific paper that has escaped our memory as humans. To ask that artificial intelligence will solve these basic problems is problematic because AI depends on past knowledge and science solves problems by future research.
Everyone is in favour of personal good health, but alas not everyone favours good environmental science because money is involved. We live in a world where major problems with climate change have had solutions presented for more than 50 years, but little more than words are presented as the solutions rather than action. This highlights one of the main differences between medicine and ecology. Medical issues are immediate since we have active lives and a limited time span of life. Ecological issues are long-term and rarely present an immediate short-term solution. Setting aside protected areas is in the best cases a long-term solution to conservation issues, but money for field research is never long term and ecologists do not live forever. Success stories for endangered species often require 10-20 years or more before success can be achieved; research grants are typically presented as 3- or 5-year proposals. The time scale we face as ecologists is like that of climate scientists. In a world of immediate daily concerns in medicine as in ecology, long-term problems are easily lost to view.
There has been an explosion of papers in the last few years on artificial intelligence as a potentially key process to use for answering both ecological and medical questions (e.g. Buchelt et al. 2024, Christin, Hervet, and Lecomte, 2019, Desjardins-Proulx, Poisot, & Gravel, 2019). It remains to be seen exactly how AI will help us to answer complex questions in ecology and medicine. AI is very good in looking back, but will it be useful to solve our current and future problems? Perhaps we still need to continue training good experimental scientists in ecology and in medicine.
Buchelt, A., Buchelt, A., Adrowitzer, A. & Holzinger, A. (2024) Exploring artificial intelligence for applications of drones in forest ecology and management. Forest Ecology and Management, 551, 121530. doi: 10.1016/j.foreco.2023.121530.
Christin, S., Hervet, É. & Lecomte, N. (2019) Applications for deep learning in ecology. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 10, 1632-1644. doi: 10.1111/2041-210X.13256.
Desjardins-Proulx, P., Poisot, T. & Gravel, D. (2019) Artificial Intelligence for ecological and evolutionary synthesis. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 7. doi: 10.3389/fevo.2019.00402.