What will you be discussing during your talk?
The neutral theory of biodiversity is both controversial and a lasting presence in community ecology. One persistent epistemological question asks how the neutral theory can be useful given its ‘obviously false’ assumption that all individuals in a community are functionally equivalent. This question has prompted the origin story that Stephen Hubbell, the chief innovator, tells. In this way, the philosophy of the neutral theory has been founded upon its history. But that history is not the only one available.
Different epistemological questions and different answers to these questions can be prompted by different narratives of the origin and development of the theory. I use Hubbell’s origin story as the jumping off point for telling the origins of the neutral theory. I critique his origin story considered as a historical claim by outlining three different but interrelated narratives of how the neutral theory of ecology grows out of the history of community ecology after 1950. The first narrative foregrounds the construction of formal models of biodiversity patterns. The second narrative foregrounds empirical and theoretical work on whether tropical communities are in taxonomic equilibrium. And the third narrative foregrounds the existence of Kimura’s neutral theory, the MBL model in paleobiology, and the debates over the proper role of “null hypotheses” in biology.
A very different historical picture of the origins of the theory emerges from these narratives than from the origin story. And a different epistemic picture of the usefulness of the neutral theory follows from these different origins.
Where does your talk fit into the panel on which you’re presenting?
We are grouped because we are all talking about “narrative”. I think we are all talking about giving a historical narrative, rather than just giving a narrative.
How did you come across this topic?
I came across the neutral theory of ecology in a seminar on chance and contingency in biology and having been working on it since. I had bought in to the history which Stephen Hubbell tells of his own theory. At a workshop in Madison a couple years ago, John Beatty (UBC) asked me about the specific history of the neutral theory and I set about to piece it together. I later realized that Hubbell’s historical narrative was influencing how the theory and surrounding controversy were being talked about, by myself and others. My talk at HSS is basically of the form: I used to think A and ask about X, but now I think B and ask about Y and Z. I’m trying to show how history is used to shape methodological debates in science and how more than one can play that game.
What has proven to be one of the most challenging or interesting thing about the sources that you used in your research?
Scientists will tell you false things about what happened 20 years ago, but not be lying about it. When someone tells and retells a story, it will change. But the old NSF grant application that you wrote still says the same thing.
What are you most looking forward to at HSS in San Francisco?
I am most looking forward to playing historian and talking to historians. I’m also looking forward to eating and drinking there, especially the great cocktail bars in SF!
Biography: I am a Ph.D. Candidate in Philosophy at the University of Minnesota. My research focuses on analyzing scientific reasoning, especially the inference patterns and lines of argumentation that scientists use to advance their work. My dissertation focuses on community ecology, but that was a highly contingent choice. I studied philosophy and physics in undergrad at UCSB and planned to work on the philosophy of physics, but luckily ecology is much messier and interesting! Last week I sent my advisor the first complete draft of my dissertation and am on the market now.