The first season of my new video series, The WmD Project, will be focused on the foundational questions of ecology and evolution.
As such I have been doing a little bit of research into these “big questions”, in particular as they were conceived of by the twin muses of this project, Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin.
Below is the list, in the chronological order that I plan to introduce them, of “foundational questions in ecology and evolution”:
- Why does life exist at all?
- What makes life different from non-life?
- Why do some individuals die and some live?
- How to do living things survive?
- How random is nature?
- Why don’t we live forever?
- Why do life forms look the way they do?
- Why are there diverse organisms?
- How do we partition diversity?
- What drives the patterns of diversity that we see across the earth?
- What determines the population size of different kinds of organisms?
- Why are some places more biodiverse than others?
- What are the various ways in which organisms interact with each other?
- Is there a difference between interactions between members of the same species versus different?
- Why is nature often a very nasty place?
- Why do organisms cooperate with each other?
- Why are there more plants than animals?
- What actually keeps ecosystems going? How do ecosystems work?
- How old is the earth?
- How do new species come into being?
- Are some species more closely related to each other?
- Why did some species go extinct?
- Why is there sexual reproduction?
- Why are there male and female organisms? Why aren’t there more types?
- Why are traits heritable?
- What are genes and how do they work in conjunction with the environment?
- Where do new traits come from?
- How are species often so well adapted to their environments?
- Why do organisms display behaviors? Different behaviors?
- Why do species change over time?
- Do different species affect each other’s evolution?
- What evolves?
- Are humans subject to evolutionary change in the same way as other organisms?
I recognize that if one were to write a list of contemporary “big questions” in ecology and evolution, there would be a lot of additional questions to add to this list. But my goal is not to capture the big questions of now: I want to create a comprehensive list of the questions that led to the formation of these scientific fields.
Feel free to comment on these “foundational questions”:
- Are these questions well-phrased and clear?
- Is this a complete list? Are there any critical questions missing?
- Do any of these questions seem superfluous?
- Is the order of the list logical?
Below is a list of some of the sources that I used to come up with these questions:
envrionment360 “On His Bicentennial, Mr. Darwin’s Questions Endure”
This page has some great commentary on Darwin’s tendency to ask questions about specific observations he made, questions that fall into some of the broad categories of my “foundational questions”. I also really like the “inherent tendency to vary” quote as it relates to the question of the diversity we observe in nature: being a keen observer of this diversity will be a key characteristic of WmD.
Ernst Mayr’s The Growth of Biological Thought
Mayr asserts that Darwin’s central questions were “Can species change, and can one species be transmuted into another?”.
Macroevolution.net “Alfred Russel Wallace”
This brief biography of Wallace discusses his “why do some die and some live?” question that was inspired in part by his malarial delirium.
UCLA Newsroom “Stepping out of Darwin’s shadow”
This page discusses some of Wallace’s important questions that relate to biogeography: why organisms exist in particular locations, and why species vary in abundance in different locations.
Natural History Museum London “Darwin’s questions on caterpillar colouring”
I like this page just because it highlights that Darwin was not above asking Wallace a question related to the evolution of organisms (in this case butterflies).
Thomas N. Sherratt and David M. Wilkinson Big Questions in Ecology and Evolution
This book contains a bunch of nicely-phrased questions that inspired some of my questions above, including the “why the world is green” question of Hairston, Smith, and Slobodkin and questions such as why species exist and why the tropics are more diverse. In particular it looks at the question of chaos, which inspired my question on randomness.
Journal of Ecology “Identification of 100 fundamental ecological questions”
Although these questions are by-and-large a lot more specific — and wonky! — than mine, it was important to see to what degree my questions encompassed these. A lot of these are about human impacts, an area that I will not approach until later in the WmD Project.