Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The British Ecological Society, and why ecology is unpopular

Last Tuesday (the 5th) I went to Oxford, to spend a day at the British Ecological Society's annual meeting.

A couple of things caught my attention: a talk (the 12.30 slot on this page) by Mairead Maclean of Exeter University, modelling the effect that domestic cats have on sparrow populations. If I remember this rightly, her study found that, in the area of rural Cornwall that she studied, a level of 80 cats per square kilometre would be enough to send the population into decline, whereas the actual level was 93. So it looks as if we might be able to convict cats of being one of the causes of the mysterious disappearing sparrows. She didn't think there was much cat owners could do about it — it seems to be a few cats doing most of the killing, with young and female cats being more avicidal than old and male cats.

The other thing, just 'cos it was related to the whole metabolic ecology, was a talk (the 16.00 slot) by David Coomes of Cambridge, looking at whether metabolic models can explain the size structure — how many big trees and small trees there are in a given area — of forests in New Zealand (this is also known as self-thinning). His conclusion (which was also reached by Muller-Landau et al., working on Sri Lankan forests) was that they can't.

This is not (as far I could tell — I may be misinterpreting here) because the view that metabolic rates influence population density is wrong, but because other things overlay the effects of metabolism, namely that old trees are more likely to die from getting blown over, disease etc., and young ones are more likely to die from being shaded out by big trees. This means that mortality is lowest for middle-sized trees (the graph of size against death risk is U-shaped), whereas (I think) metabolic models predict that mortality risk rises with increasing size.

But on the whole, I was surprised, looking at the meeting programme, by how little either grabbed me by the throat or seemed like it would make a good story, science-journalism wise. Nothing wrong with that, of course — the meeting's not set up for my benefit. But it got me thinking about why there is so little popsci on ecology. Here are some suggestions…

First, ecology is hard. Understanding the questions asked by people tackling say, the spatial and temporal patterns shown by forest tree species, or the influence that food-web structure has on ecosystem stability (to give two examples discussed at the BES), takes a bit of effort, but is not too hard.

Understanding the answers they come up with is a lot harder, particularly as the answers often seem to be uncertain, qualified and localized. Also, these ideas, as with most in ecology, do not have obvious parallels form everyday life, unlike, say animal behaviour, where the parallels between animals and humans are an ever-present reference point.

This complexity and unfamiliarity is also true of particle physics and cosmology, but people are probably more willing to wrestle with trying to understand the big bang, or quarks, because the ideas have more grandeur than, say, understanding the population dynamics of flour beetles. I enjoy quantum entanglement as a mind-blowing spectator sport, without really understanding what on it's all about.

Also, everyone asks her- or himself how the universe began, how the world will end, and so on, so such science taps into a pre-existing market. People love nature, but, I'd suggest, their relationship with it is less philosophical, more sensual and domestic. We marvel at the flowers in a meadow, but most of us don't ponder why the field contains that particular number of species.

Also, unlike animal behaviour, palaeontology or cosmology, ecology is not a narrative science — the work is hard to tell in the form of a story, cause and effect, and so on. One is asking why things are as they are, often trying to find an explanation that doesn't rely on history, rather than how they got that way.

And apart from conservation (in the widest sense, including fisheries, agriculture etc.), there are not many issues that seem to matter to people's everyday lives. And rather a lot of ecology — probably most — has nothing to do with conservation, it's folks trying to work out how the living world is put together. (Nothing wrong with that, of course, and nothing particularly unusual — most genetics isn't going to find a cure for cancer or inherited diseases, although geneticists are good at selling their research as if it might.) In fact, earlier this year the BES had to cancel a meeting on the links between ecology and sustainable development owing to lack of interest. Ouch.

This might come as a surprise, but then perhaps another problem is the very word 'ecology' which people tend to think is a Good Thing that is something to do with having a nice environment: pollution, energy generation etc. (The UK Green Party used to be called the Ecology Party, for goodness' sake. I don't believe density-dependent mortality was high on their list of concerns.) As far back as 1979, Stephen Jay Gould was lamenting (in an NYRB essay about Evelyn Hutchinson, I'm afraid I can't find the exact quote right now) that the word was so debased that its scientific sense had become meaningless to non-scientists.

So how to write about ecology? I've found that using people's stories and biographies can be a good springboard to writing about their ideas and work. I've also found that writing about the roots and origin of a question can lead one into writing about contemporary issues — particularly as most of the oldest questions in ecology are still unresolved. (This isn't such a revelatory solution, I know.) But this doesn't really help when one is sniffing round a conference for a 400-word news story.


Dave Reay said...

Dear John,

Couldn't agree more. I don't think is so much the subject being inaccesible as the presentation too often being turgid and overly peer-conscious.

Looking forward to reading your new book by the way.

Best wishes,


postblogger said...

I liked your blog and this article reminded me, in an admittedly elliptical way, of Darwin's famous 'tangled bank' quote. As I recall (OK, Googled), he wrote It is interesting...to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

Although I presume that Darwin's focus was on the laws acting to produce the elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, a little wilful misreading hints that the laws acting to make things dependent upon each other in so complex a manner are also implicit in Darwin's passage. So ecology might be unpopular now, but people have been ignoring it for ages...

All the best with the book, by the way!

P.S. That was a bit pretentious, wasn't it? Ah, heck, I'm a comment virgin - go easy on me...