What is a species? This apparently simple question is one of the best ways to get scientists arguing.
A recent article by Henry Taylor, a philosopher at University of Birmingham, asks this question from a philosophical perspective. The article itself is okay. But there is zero chance of biologists adopting its recommendation, ‘to scrap the idea of a species’, any time soon (see also this older article at the same platform, on the same subject, from a biologist’s perspective).
What I found interesting is how different audiences interpreted the article in the comments and on social media. I saw a mix of reactions (based on my network and a few searches; obviously not indicative of everyone) – some scientists were condemning the article vocally and aggressively, while others who didn’t appear to be scientists (based on their Twitter bio), shared the article in agreement and support.
‘What is a species?’ is a classic philosophical question, not a scientific one. Philosophical questions are a valuable tool for life. They are conceptual, not factual; they are rarely ‘solved’ (in the scientific sense); and they need to be addressed with complex thinking, not just facts or empirical research. You don’t have to agree with this approach, it’s just how Philosophy differs from Science. Disciplines are defined by different methodologies, standards, systems, and norms.
A key argument against the ecosystem services concept is that it doesn’t account for most of the ecological complexity around us. This is a valid criticism. The ecosystem services concept is based on an idealised economic stock–flow model, which is pretty simplistic and unrealistic when you apply it to a real social-ecological system (i.e. any system based on human and nature interactions).
Identifying a particular ecological process as a ‘service’ because it benefits humans in one time and place overlooks the principles of basic ecology: outcomes of interactions between species and environments change across space and time.
Recently, some scientists have argued that quantifying ecosystem disservices is the best way to account for this complexity. Disservices are essentially the opposite of services, outcomes of natural processes that affect humans negatively, like disease spread, or pest damage to crops.
But this could be just another wild goose chase. Continue reading
Ecologists: where do your research ideas come from? And does this influence the science you do?
This excellent blog post by Stephen Heard illustrates how observation and creative freedom are such an important part of the scientific method. We all know how to run an experiment to ensure the results are actually ‘science’.
But why do we run experiments or collect data? Where do we get the idea to do the experiment in the first place?
We might not know why we start an investigation, in formulaic ‘null hypothesis’ terms. But our knowledge and experience to date, however limited or vague, has given us the idea that collecting these data in that system is worth doing – there is some level of uncertainty in the system that inspires us to investigate further. Often we can’t clarify that uncertainty in words or numbers…so we put it down to ‘I was bored and just wanted to see what happened’.
But if you already know for certain, through knowledge and experience, that testing an idea is pointless, you wouldn’t waste your time, right? You don’t just suddenly say “Hmm, I wonder what would happen if I pee while standing on my head? I’m bored, so I might try it and see…” Continue reading