Monday, December 26, 2011

Rumors of community ecology’s death were greatly exaggerated: reflections on Lawton 1999

In 1999, John Lawton, eminent British ecologist, published a lament for the state of community ecology entitled “Are there general laws in ecology?” Cited more than 600 times, Lawton’s paper forced a re-evaluation of community ecology’s value, success, and even future existence. Other scientists at the time seemed to agree, with papers starting with phrases like “Although community ecology is a struggling science…” and “Given the lack of general laws in ecology…”. Lawton appeared to be suggesting that community ecology be abandoned for the generality of macroecology or the structure of population ecology.

An important point to be made is that Lawton was simply making a particularly public expression of ecology’s growing pains. In 1999, ecology was at a crossroads between the traditional approach of in-depth system-based study, and a fairly single-minded focus on competition as an explanation for patterns (e.g., Cooper 1993 ‘The Competition Controversy in Community Ecology’ Biology and Philosophy 8: 359-384), while at the same time there were emergent approaches and explanations like neutrality, macroecology, spatial ecology, ecophylogenetics, and improved computer and molecular methods. There was also growing dissent about ecology’s philosophical approach to ecology (e.g., Peters 1991 ‘A Critique for Ecology’; Haila and Heininen 1995 ‘Ecology: A New Discipline for Disciplining’ Social Text 42: 153-171): ecologists tended to ignore the Popperian approach, which required falsification of existing hypothesis, instead tending to look for support for an existing hypothesis, or at least advocated looking for patterns without considering alternative mechanisms. Not only this, but the applications for ecology were more clear than ever – the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change was meeting , and the ecological consequences of human actions were perhaps more obvious they had ever been. But ecologists were failing at providing solutions –Lawton argued-correctly-that in 1999 ecologists could provide little insight into how a community might change in structure and function in response to changing climate.

Although everyone should read Lawton’s paper, a simple synthesis of his concerns would be this – that community ecology is too contingent, communities are too complex, and therefore community ecology cannot formulate any laws, cannot make predictions, cannot be generalized from one system to another. This makes community ecology suspect as a science (physics being the most common example of an “ideal” science), and certainly not very useful. Lawton suggests that population ecology, where only a few models of growth could explain the majority of species’ dynamics, or macroecology, which focuses on the most general, large-scale patterns, were a better example of how ecology should be practiced.

Community ecology, rather than dying, has experienced an incredible surge in popularity, with a large contingent represented at meetings and in journal publications. Ecology itself is also thriving, as one of the fastest growing departments in universities. So what, if anything, has changed? Has ecology addressed Lawton’s criticisms?

Two major things happened in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, which helped ecologists see beyond this general malaise. The first was that a number of well-thought out alternative ecological mechanisms explaining community membership were published. Before the late 90’s community ecologists looked for evidence of competition in patterns of community composition, either among locales or through time following disturbance. When local competition was insufficient to explain patterns, researchers likely cited, but did not test other mechanisms. Or if they did test other mechanisms, say predation, it was as an alternative, mutually exclusive mechanism. The new publications, drawing on previous ideas and concepts formalized assembly mechanisms like neutral processes or metacommunity dynamics where uneven fitnesses in a heterogeneous landscape can affect local coexistence. More than these as solely alternative mechanisms, these allowed for a synthesis where multiple mechanisms operate simultaneously to affect coexistence. Probably the most emblematic paper of this renewed excitement is Peter Chesson’s 2000 ‘Mechanisms of maintenance of species diversity’ published in Annual Reviews of Ecology and Systematics. This paper, cited over a thousand times, offers a way forward with a framework that includes competitive and niche differences but can also account for neutral dynamics.

A second major development that rejuvenated ecology was the formation of technological and statistical tools engendering broad-scale synthetic research. Suddenly the search for general explanations – Lawton’s most piercing criticism - became more common and more successful. With the advent of on-line databases, meta-analytic procedures and centers (e.g., the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis) that foster synthetic research, ecologists routinely test hypotheses that transcend local idiosyncrasies. Often, the capstone publication on a particular hypothesis is no longer a seminal experiment, but rather a meta-analysis that is combines all the available information to assess how strongly and how often a particular mechanism affects patterns.

While these theoretical and technological developments have been essential ingredients in this ecological rejuvenation, there has also been a subtle shift the philosophical approach to what it is ecological theory can and should do. Criticism in the 1990’s (e.g., Peters 1991 ‘A Critique for Ecology’) centered on the inability of ecological theory to make accurate predictions. The concept of science common in ecology in the 1990’s was that a rigorous, precise science (i.e., with laws) results in the ability to accurately predict species composition and species abundances given a set of mechanisms. This view of ecological science has been criticized as simplistic ‘physics-envy’ (e.g., see Massimo Pigliucci’s PhD dissertation ‘Dangerous habits: examining the philosophical baggage of biological research’published by the University of Tennessee in 2003). The subtle philosophical change has been a move from law=prediction to law=understanding. This is as true for physics as it is for ecology. We don’t expect a physicist to predict precisely where a falling feather will land, but we do expect to totally understand why it landed where it did based on fundamental processes. (for more on the contrast of prediction and understanding, see Wilhelm Windelband’s nomothetic and idiographic knowledge)

While the feather example above is simplistic, it is telling. In reality a physicist can produce probability contours of where the feather is likely to land, which could be very focused on a calm day or broad on a windy one. This is exactly what ecologists do. Once they understand how differing mechanisms come together to shape diversity, they make probabilistic predictions about the outcome of a set of known mechanisms.

Ecology today is as vibrant as ever. This is not a result of finding new laws that proved Lawton incorrect. Rather, ecologists now have a more sophisticated understanding of how various mechanisms operate in concert to shape diversity. Moreover, conceptual, technological and philosophical revolutions have fundamentally changed what ecologists do and what they are trying to explain. It is a great time to be an ecologist.

Lawton, J. H. (1999). Are there general laws in ecology? Oikos, 84(2), 177-192.

By Marc Cadotte and Caroline Tucker


  1. Interesting post. And thanks for giving me an excuse to link to my own reactions to Lawton's piece. ;-)

  2. Ecology will continue to struggle as a science until scientists can, argue with great clarity and effectiveness, that it is critical to the survival of our wallets.

    While there are many who take ecology very seriously, there are many more so see it as the province of Greenies.

    Ecologists need to do what politicans often do and that is to create simple messages and repeat them often. Sports Management Student