03 November 2008

All the world's a stage...

Ecology has come a long way from its first emergence as a distinct field of study in the 1970s. Like me, over the same period, it has moved from cuddly hippiedom to a strongly data-centred systems view of the world.

OK, so that’s an oversimplification. From another view it was a datacentric approach, and increasing access to computerised methods, that enabled and drove the newly separated discipline in the first place. Nevertheless, the engine that drove undergraduates of my generation in ecological directions was the emotional impact of Carson’s Silent Spring1 or its successors, with the likes of Kershaw’s Quantitative and dynamic plant ecology2 simply providing the means. Only later did the study itself become the point of the game.

I am finalising this during a break between sessions of a planning meeting in which Russian hosts discuss details of a major migration study with opposite numbers from every continent except Antarctica. Thirty years ago, even if such a meeting had been imaginable, the attitudes of those participants would have been different. Even now, those participants’ approaches here are subtly different from those which they display on home turf. As with many areas of scientific computing, this is down in large measure to the internet and other distributed information, analysis and communication developments: access to global data encourages not only objective analysis, but methodological comparison.

That globalisation of data also underpins the nature of the field itself. Ecology is, by its nature, interconnective; arguably, it really exists only in those interconnections and not in the nodes that belong in other disciplines. While manageability requires that ecotyping of bacterial systematics3 and global migration of viruses4, crop pathogens5, birds6 or humans7 are distinct data collection projects, all are subsets of a larger and ever growing data pool on the biosphere as a total system. Human minds are reasonably good at comprehending the two limits of that range, but the infinitely complex network of levels between is more difficult and without scientific computing would likely never be addressed at all. Since localised human impacts now constitute a major input to global habitat output, filling in those black box blanks is a priority for any ideas of a managed future.

It would be ridiculously over the top to suggest that any real approximation to a detailed whole planet ecology model (or ‘gaia model’ as some describe it) yet exists, but work towards joining up some of the dots is being done throughout the extent of that connective tissue. Particular foci of attention include critical examination of local interventions, construction of supersets from local data, and interlocal vectors. [more...]

  1. Carson, R., Silent spring. Repr. with a new afterword. ed. 1962, London: Penguin Books in association with Hamish Hamilton, 1999. 0140273719

  2. Kershaw, K.A., Quantitative and dynamic ecology. 1964, London: Arnold.

  3. Koeppel, A., et al., Identifying the fundamental units of bacterial diversity: A paradigm shift to incorporate ecology into bacterial systematics. PNAS, 2008. 105(7): p. 2504-2509.

  4. Nelson, M.I., et al., Phylogenetic Analysis Reveals the Global Migration of Seasonal Influenza A Viruses. PLoS Pathogens, 2007. 3(9).

  5. Munkacsi, A.B., S. Stoxen, and G. May, Ustilago maydis populations tracked maize through domestication and cultivation in the Americas. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2008. 275(1638): p. 1037-1046.

  6. PRBO: Pacific Shorebird Migration Project. 2007.Hugo, G., Population geography. Progress in Human Geography, 2007. 31(1): p. 77-88.

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