The Two Ecologies

Trying to keep up with the ecological literature is a daunting task, and my aging efforts shout to me that there are now two ecologies that it might be worth partially separating. First, many published “ecological” papers are natural history. This is certainly an important component of the environmental literature but for the most part good observations alone are not science in the formal sense of science addressing problems and trying to solve them with the experimental approach. The information provided in the natural history literature regarding both plants and animals include their identification, where they live, what nutrients or food resources they utilize and in some cases information on their conservation status. A good foundation of natural history is needed to do good ecological research to be sure so my statements must not be misinterpreted to suggest that I do not appreciate natural history. Good natural history leads into the two parts of ecology that I would like to discuss. I call these social ecology and scientific ecology.

Social ecology flows most easily out of natural history and deals with the interaction between humans and the biota. Thus, for example, many people love birds which are ever present in both cities and countryside, are often highly colourful and vocal in our environment. Similarly, many tourists from North America visit Australia, Africa and Central America to see birds that are unique to those regions. Similar adventures are available to see elephants, bison, bears, and whales in their natural habitats. Social ecology flows into conservation biology in cases where preferred species are threatened by human changes to the landscape. The key here is that there is a mix in social ecology between human entertainment and a concern for species losses that are driven by human actions. Social ecology is mostly about people and their views of what parts of the environment are important to them. People love elephants but are little concerned about earthworms unless they bother them.

Scientific ecology should operate with a broader perspective of testing hypotheses to understand how populations and communities of animals and plants interact to produce the world as we see it. It asks about how species interactions change over time and whether they lead to environmental stability or instability. Scientific ecology has a time dimension that is much longer than that of social ecology. The focus of scientific ecology is hypothesis testing to answer problems or questions about how the biological world works. This perspective interacts strongly with climate change and human disturbances as well as natural disturbances like flooding or forest fires. While social ecology asks what is happening, scientific ecology asks why this is happening in our ecosystems. Scientific ecology allows us to determine the causal factors behind problems of change and the management approaches that might be required. While social ecology observes that migratory birds appear to be declining in abundance, scientific ecology asks exactly which bird species are at risk and what factors like food supplies, predation, or disease are the cause of the decline. And most importantly can humans change the environment to prevent species losses?

Conservation ecology has become the link between social and scientific ecology and shares elements of both approaches. Too much of social conservation biology consists of moaning and groaning about changes with little data and unverifiable speculations. As such it provides little help to solve conservation problems. When there is clear public support for issues like old growth logging, politicians often do not act ethically to follow public support because of economics or inertia. Scientific ecology has been strongly influenced by Karl Popper’s (1963) book, with much discussion today among philosophers about Popper’s approach to hypotheses within the context of our social values and objectives (Dias 2019). Lundblad and Conway (2021) provide a classic example of hypothesis testing for clutch size in birds which illustrates well the path of scientific ecology over many years from initial conjectures to more refined understanding of the original scientific question.

In a sense this ecological dichotomy is found in many of the sciences. Medicine is a good example. We can observe and describe symptoms of people dying of lung cancer, but medical scientists really wish to know what environmental causes like air pollution or cigarette smoking are producing this mortality, and whether genetic backgrounds are involved. Science is far from perfect and there are many false leads in proposals of drugs in medicine that turn out to be counterproductive to solving a particular problem. Kim and Kendeou (2021) discuss the critical question of knowledge transfer as science progresses in our society today through knowledge transfer from generation to generation.

My concern is that social ecology is replacing scientific ecology in the ecological literature so that as we are so enamoured with the beauty of nature, we forget the need to find out quantitatively what is happening and how it might be mitigated. As with medicine, talking about problems does not solve them without serious empirical scientific study.

Dias, E.A. (2019) Science as a game in Popper. Griot : Revista de Filosofia,, 19, 327-337.doi: 10.31977/grirfi.v19i3.1239. (in Portuguese; use Google Translate)

Kim, J. & Kendeou, P. (2021) Knowledge transfer in the context of refutation texts. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 67, 102002.doi: 10.1016/j.cedpsych.2021.102002.

Lundblad, C.G. & Conway, C.J. (2021) Ashmole’s hypothesis and the latitudinal gradient in clutch size. Biological Reviews, 96, 1349-1366.doi: 10.1111/brv.12705.

Popper, K.R. (1963) Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London. 412 pp.

4 thoughts on “The Two Ecologies

  1. Mike Braysher

    Well said Charley. Scientific ecology, as you say, is running a poor second, in part due to reluctance to fund such research but also because it takes too long to gather the data, analyse and publish, meaning fewer papers and more difficult to obtain grants but also less for academic promotion. Much better to be a gene jockey and describe new species.

  2. Gabor Lovei

    Toungue in cheek, and plagiarising Roger Day’s classic (How to write a scientific paper…) : this rant has good and original parts. Unfortunately, the good ones are not original, and the original ones are not good.
    Hungarian theoretical ecologist Pal Juhasz-Nagy started to define the field of supraorganismal biology by stating a “reductio ad absurdum”: all living organisms can occur anywhere on Earth, at any time and at any density. This is obviously false. He claimed that this posed two basic questions of supraorganismal biology, the deviation one (to what degree is the above statement false?) which he called synbiology, and the causative one (why is the statement false, i.e. what creates the patterns we can observe?) which he called ecology sensu stricto. To me, this shows a clarity that the rant does not.
    I think the term “social ecology” muddles the waters. I also prefer not to call “natural history” the data needed to answer the deviation question – partly to avoid the reputation confusion around the “natural history” term. Granted, synbiology is a descriptive field, although importantly, a quantitative one.

  3. Michael Baumann

    [This got a little longer than intended. Forgive me, Charley.]

    “A dominant disposition to find out what is, should precede and crowd aside the question, commendable at a later stage, “How came this so?” First full facts, then interpretations.” (1)

    “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist the facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” (2)

    All my professional life, I have tried to make sense of how we humans acquire knowledge. The trouble is that we have only limited direct access to observable phenomena and no direct access to the causes that cause the observable phenomena (3). By necessity: Facts first, causes later.

    Consequently, reading The Two Ecologies, the two questions came to mind:

    1: Is the existence of two varieties of ecology a fact?

    I do not know the literature as well as you do, Charley, not by a very, very long shot. (I doubt I know anybody else who could cite a recent philosophical paper published in Portuguese.) But from what I have seen over the last quarter of a century, I agree with you but would go one step further: There are three ecologies: Scientific ecology, natural history ecology, and bleeding hearts ecology.

    2: What working hypotheses can explain the emergence of these varieties of ecology and the divergence of character?

    Unsurprisingly, this question is trickier, not least because we cannot conduct proper experiments and are left with only the methods of historical science (4). I won’t get into proximate causes and ultimate causes, necessary causes and sufficient causes, et cetera, but I give it a shot.

    WORKING HYPOTHESIS #1: From scientific ecology to natural history ecology.
    Establishing facts is hard work. (In the boreal forest ecosystem, some mammal species show population cycles.) Establishing causes is A LOT MORE hard work. (What are the causes for the population cycles?)

    As Levins and Lewontin wrote in 1985(!): “The harder problems are not tackled, if for no other reason than that brilliant scientific careers are not built on persistent failure.” (5)

    Or Chittty in 1996: “In our times, we would only publish when we felt we had something to say. Today, if you don’t have anything to say, you do that in at least two or three papers.” (6)

    Not reading, writing gets you tenure. (And possibly ingratiating yourself to the right people.)

    WORKING HYPOTHESIS #2: From scientific ecology to bleeding hearts ecology.
    Ecology has a recruitment problem. Who wants to go into ecology? With the exception of my wife, I know nobody outside the subject area who could give me a satisfactory definition of ecology.

    If you are good with numbers, you go into math or AI. If you are fascinated with biology, you go into biomedical engineering. Who’s left? The bleeding hearts. Climate change, composting and recycling, save the whales.

    WORKING HYPOTHESIS #3: The decline of academia.
    In the 1990s, universities shifted from being cultural institutions to being big businesses (7). Most of the faculty members today have never experienced any other condition. Every generation suffers from what Daniel Pauly correctly identified as shifting baseline syndrome (8).

    “The difficulty is that disproof is a hard doctrine. If you have a hypothesis and I have another hypothesis, evidently one of them must be eliminated. The scientist seems to have no choice but to be either soft-headed or disputatious.” (9)

    Disputatiousness seems to have disappeared, agreeableness and groupthink are ubiquitous. Not an intellectual foe, a friend you must hire. (He or she may put your name on his or her publications.)

    (1) T.C. Chamberlin (1890), The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses. Reprinted: Science 148: 754 – 759.
    (2) Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson in A. C. Doyle (1892), A Scandal in Bohemia.
    (3) M. Baumann (in prep.), The Elements of Truth.
    (4) S. J. Gould (1989), Wonderful Life.
    (5) R. Levins and R. Lewontin (1985), The Dialectical Biologist.
    (6) D. Chittty (1996, pers. comm).
    (7) F. Furedi (2004), Where have all the intellectuals gone?
    (8) D. Pauly (1995), Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 10: 430.
    (9) J. R. Platt (1964), Strong Inference. Science 146: 347 – 353

    1. Charles Krebs Post author

      Michael – many thanks for your insights. I think you have given me enough quotations for my next conference lectures. I agree with it all. Charley


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