Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

The Big Questions in Ecology and Evolution

Posted 16 Feb 2015 / 2
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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”:

  1. Why does life exist at all?
  2. What makes life different from non-life?
  3. Why do some individuals die and some live?
  4. How to do living things survive?
  5. How random is nature?
  6. Why don’t we live forever?
  7. Why do life forms look the way they do?
  8. Why are there diverse organisms?
  9. How do we partition diversity?
  10. What drives the patterns of diversity that we see across the earth?
  11. What determines the population size of different kinds of organisms?
  12. Why are some places more biodiverse than others?
  13. What are the various ways in which organisms interact with each other?
  14. Is there a difference between interactions between members of the same species versus different?
  15. Why is nature often a very nasty place?
  16. Why do organisms cooperate with each other?
  17. Why are there more plants than animals?
  18. What actually keeps ecosystems going? How do ecosystems work?
  19. How old is the earth?
  20. How do new species come into being?
  21. Are some species more closely related to each other?
  22. Why did some species go extinct?
  23. Why is there sexual reproduction?
  24. Why are there male and female organisms? Why aren’t there more types?
  25. Why are traits heritable?
  26. What are genes and how do they work in conjunction with the environment?
  27. Where do new traits come from?
  28. How are species often so well adapted to their environments?
  29. Why do organisms display behaviors? Different behaviors?
  30. Why do species change over time?
  31. Do different species affect each other’s evolution?
  32. What evolves?
  33. 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?”. 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 EcologyIdentification 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.

A Major Post, Ecology, Evolution, The WmD Project

2 Comments to "The Big Questions in Ecology and Evolution"

Ric Brown 19th February 2015 at 5:37 pm

So I would note that in the case of question one
1. Why does life exist at all?
There is an understandable assumption about life as an object of intellectual study. Should this assumption be left aside or left unexamined to pursue a broader question of “Why?” Minerals, no less that Humans are included in Linneaus’ classification of nature. Also a hint of purposefulness, too, because is such a “why?” may not be within the scope of a field of study, or the lack of an answer may not serve as any hindrance to the field of inquiry. Perhaps combined with the second question as in something like:
In Ecology, what is life and what makes life different from non-life?

Number 15 is, I think, somewhat confusing.

Some questions I would like to hear you address in your project:

Given that the term ecology is being used, sometime appropriately and sometimes not, in a wide variety of intellectual domains (e.g., “Media Ecology”), what if any are the ramifications of this form of popularization on the field of ecology itself?

Where is the line between the ecological and social worlds?

Where is the line between ecology and sociology?
(You could say, those are two questions are asking “What are the limits of ecological inquiry?” That of course, to some degree takes us back to question 1.)

What is the relationship between ecology and economics? Is ecology ra form of political economy (or is political economy itself a form of ecological thinking)?

What is the relation between the emergence of ecology and the eclipsing of Natural History? This change occurred, after all, during the lifetimes of D and W.

And if these are not important questions for the field of ecology then it follows that an important question is:

To what degree is the history of ecology important?

Looking forward to seeing what you do with this.

Chris Jensen 19th February 2015 at 10:23 pm

Wow, Ric, thanks so much for the great suggestions.

Agreed that #15 needs a re-write. That’s more in the language that I expect WmD to use, whereas the rest of these are translated into more “colloquially scientific” language. I really need to frame that question around competition and exploitation to “match” the rest of the questions. This is going to be a real challenge of this project: to translate effectively from all these terms that we know and take for granted from ecology and evolution to an insightful outsider’s verbalization of the same ideas in everyday language.

A lot of what you discuss here are questions and topics that I would like to address deeper into this project. The idea is to recapitulate the framing questions that led to the formation of these fields, but this is tricky. For example, there is a modern application of evolution to economics in the field of behavioral economics, but we can also say that economic theory influenced early ecology and evolutionary thinking.

My character has to be believably naive. For this reason, there may be some risk in getting too deep into these interconnections too early. My assumption is that WmD is an insightful person, but like all insightful people he must build higher-level insights on more foundational insights.

You bring up a really great point about natural history. That transition from natural history to what we now call ecology and evolution was crucial: all those centuries of keen observation of natural patterns provided the foundation for ecological and evolutionary theory. So WmD is really going to be a natural historian for the early part of this project. And in fact a great way for me to introduce these questions is to have WmD be a natural historian: to use observations in his environment to provoke these questions. I expect it to be a fun challenge to limit WmD to his urban environment while still trying to bring forth all these questions.

Ric, I will be in touch “offline”. And again, a huge “thanks”.

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