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How some evolutionary biologists see ecology (you might be surprised!)

April 9, 2013

In a fascinating article on measurement in biology, David Houle and others begin with this,

PROGRESS IN science often involves quantification. Ideas progress from loose verbal accounts to become rigorous mathematical models. At the same time, concepts and entities progress from incomplete verbal definitions to become variables and parameters that derive their meaning from a precise theoretical context. For example, ecology developed from an unconnected set of verbal ideas in 1920 to a unified science with a rigorous foundation in mathematical population ecology by about 1970 (Kingsland 1985), and similar changes took place during the modern synthesis in evolutionary biology. Arguably, empirical progress results mainly from better measurement. Measurements improve either because of more rigorous theory, which defines what is important to measure, or better instruments, which allow more accurate measurements of familiar quantities or make the previously unknown measurable. The high status of quantification in science is therefore no surprise, nor is the desire of researchers to support their work with quantitative measurements.

Did you catch that? They put ecology *before* evolution: `rigorous foundation in mathematical population ecology’, and then…oh ya…then there’s this evolutionary biology thing…modern synthesis blah blah. That definitely doesn’t fit with the usual assumption that ecology lags behind evolution in its theoretical content. And did he say ‘unified’ and ‘ecology’ in the same sentence? I wonder if this paragraph structure was intentional, or if it could have just as easily started with the modern synthesis and then briefly mentioned ecological theory as a second example?

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 14, 2013 5:05 pm

    Hmmm, no answers to your question I’m afraid, but looks like a heck of an interesting paper.

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