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Abstract In this essay, I argue that natural history--observing the natural world and deciphering its patterns--is as essential today as it was during Darwin's lifetime to the continuing development of ecology and evolutionary biology. This tradition, which I illustrate through the example of E. O. Wilson's discovery of the taxon cycle 50 years ago, is still very much alive, but there is a growing tendency for observation to serve theory rather provide new insight or to test the predictions of theory. This tendency manifests itself in the failure of ideas about the diversity, distribution, and abundance of species to be informed by patterns in nature that are readily apparent. On the one hand, supporters of neutral theory have sidestepped the unrealistically slow dynamics of random processes in large metacommunities, and they have failed to note global correlations in species numbers and population sizes within taxa. On the other hand, proponents of niche theory have disregarded the implications of variation in distribution and abundance among close relatives, which implies population regulation largely by species-specific agents, such as pathogens. Nor has community niche theory addressed the independence of distribution and abundance with respect to number of close relatives (and presumed competitors). The diversity, abundances, and distributions of species represent the unfolding of many processes over a historically and geographically contingent landscape, for which experimental methods of scientific inquiry are poorly suited. To interpret patterns of diversity, we must continue to depend on inductive reasoning inspired by the data of natural history.


Robert E Ricklefs. Naturalists, natural history, and the nature of biological diversity. The American naturalist. 2012 Apr;179(4):423-35

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PMID: 22437173

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