Ecological Paradigms Lost: Routes of Theory Change. Beatrix Beisner and Kim Cuddington, eds. Elsevier Academic Press, Burlington, MA, 2005. 464 pp., illus. $79.95 (ISBN 0120884593 paper).
The genesis of Ecological Paradigms Lost, according to editors Beatrix Beisner and Kim Cuddington, took place in a conversation with a graduate student at an ESA meeting where the editors were “dismayed” at the student's lack of historical knowledge. Beisner and Cuddington argue that an understanding of a discipline's history is important. An ignorance of history can lead to the repetition of past mistakes, which is an inefficient way of advancing knowledge. Moreover, knowledge of history better equips scientists, policymakers, and citizens for the present, providing us with rich tools and understanding.
With these ideas in mind, the editors formed two goals for the volume. First, prominent ecologists would provide historical overviews of changes in the theories of different ecological sub-disciplines. Second, the editors would address the question of whether the paradigms underwent categorical shifts as they developed, or whether they simply became more complex over time.
These are admirable goals. Historical analysis is difficult, and it can be difficult to justify its study to students (or to busy researchers). The ignorance that Beisner and Cuddington deplore may be as common among their peers as among graduate students; I am as guilty as anyone else of having too poor an understanding of the history of the disciplines I tread.
Beisner and Cuddington organized a lineup of treatises on population modeling, epidemiological models, the stability–diversity debate, evolutionary ecology, and ecosystem ecology, pairing prominent ecologists with philosophers to lay out the rise and fall of paradigms. The inclusion of the philosophers seemed like a stroke of genius: I hadn't really known that philosophers considered our science at all, much less that more than one could be found to comment upon it. By page 5, my excitement had grown at the prospect of a historical compass.
By the beginning of the first section, my excitement began to wane. In fact, aside from a notable uptick 200 pages later, courtesy of Eric Pianka and Henry Horn (chapter 11,“Ecology's Legacy from Robert MacArthur”), my excitement declined for the next 400 pages. I won't quantify when the excitement strayed south of zero.
Unfortunately, the standard I use for books about about paradigm shifts in science—The Ice Finders, by Edmund Blair Bolles—was too high to allow me to read Ecological Paradigms Lost without disappointment. The Ice Finders is a short text that chronicles the ideological battles between Louis Aggasiz and Charles Lyell regarding continental glaciers. Set in a time when scientific explanations were rapidly replacing biblical explanations for natural phenomenon, Bolles's book lays out in incredible detail the exchanges between the two, and in rich detail we witness Lyell's theory collapse as Agassiz's rises. I have read nothing that better captures the pique of scientists as they grapple with competing theories.
At the end of Ecological Paradigms Lost, the editors state that the main lesson learned from the previous sections was that “Kuhnian paradigm shifts rarely occur in ecology and that theory development is best described as an evolutionary process, which can lead to a multiplicity of approaches.”A better summary is that the authors hadn't identified any paradigm shifts. The editors create a dichotomy between paradigm shifts and evolution of paradigms, but it might be premature to assume that paradigms evolve.
More important is the question of why paradigm shifts were not discovered. The editors all but state that the book's findings should be considered a null result. In part 2, two scientists provide opposing viewpoints on approaches to modeling, and then a philosopher comes in and states that both approaches are useful. The tensions discussed don't define opposing paradigms and have little bearing on the development of paradigms. Something similar happens in the next section regarding epidemiological models. Unanswered is the question of whether these mathematical models really reflect our conceptual models and the criteria used to substantiate a paradigm shift. For the stability–diversity debate, we learn about how much of the debate was produced over differences in how stability was defined. Definitional shifts occurred, but not paradigm shifts.
I agreed with much of the editors' summary. For example, by the time I arrived at the section on ecosystem ecology (my bread and butter), I didn't even care about the topics reviewed (T. F. H. Allen and colleagues discuss “the observer–observation complex,” Garry Peterson describes “resilience analysis” in ecosystem management, and Kevin de Laplante discusses postmodernism and postnor-malism) or the gaps in the discussion (I didn't once find the words “carbon”or “nitrogen”). The analysis of paradigm shifts just wasn't working.
In part, this book got ahead of itself. Before discussing paradigm shifts, the paradigms themselves need to be carefully described. Assessing the paradigms in Ecological Paradigms Lost is difficult because the concept of paradigms isn't even defined until page 420, and then only as “a particular way of doing science in a given subdiscipline.” I'm not a philosopher, but that just didn't match my understanding of paradigms as sets of interrelated assumptions on the functioning of a system that form a conceptual framework. With paradigms themselves so poorly defined, no wonder it was hard to evaluate whether paradigms had shifted. In many respects, the authors don't discuss paradigms; they generally discuss methodology, approaches, or individual assumptions.
The question that needs to be asked first is not whether ecological paradigms shift, but what the paradigms are. It is clear that paradigms in this field are hard to define. Are there really (or were there ever) competing paradigms in ecology, or are there just a lot of people who believe different things?
Each section of Ecological Paradigms Lost certainly has something to offer the specialist. The Pianka and Horn chapter is the only one I would recommend universally. The chapter is an unpretentious and personal account of the authors' relationships with Robert MacArthur and the legacy of respect, encouragement, and thoughtfulness he left behind. From these two writers, we get a glimpse of how both, with MacArthur, helped define theories. In their anecdotes, we get a glimpse of how ecological paradigms might shift. If this book had been filled with personal narratives that discuss how ideas are generated and how one's own ideas change over time, we might better understand how the collective understanding of a discipline shifts over time.