and push things along by publishing half-formed ideas or suggestive but inconclusive data. Sometimes, mistakes were later found in these studies, which confirmed him as a charlatan to those who disagreed with his science or resented his fame and influence.

MacArthur saw being interesting and provocative as part of his job; tidying up could come later. A few years after he published it, for example, he decided that his broken-stick model was wrong. Theory would naturally run on ahead of data. It takes days to build a mathematical model but months or years to do a field study. But for MacArthur there was no later: He was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 1971 and died the next year, at age 42. His untimely death left many of his theories only partly formed and tested. It also created a power vacuum. Ecology was a young and growing science, and the generation of researchers following MacArthur was hungry for prestige. Continuing his work was one obvious way to do this; knocking it down was another. The theory of competition, said Simberloff, “[had] caused a generation of ecologists to waste a monumental amount of time.” Diamond and his colleagues called the criticisms “silly” and “lacking common sense.” All the arguing dissuaded the next generation of ecologists from working on these problems; the discipline shifted back toward experimental studies, and researchers wanting to study the large-scale patterns in nature found it difficult to get funding.

By the early 1980s the preceding decades’ optimism had dissolved. Many ecologists despaired that studying competition would bear fruit. The criteria that might explain diversity—the heterogeneity of the environment and the competitive interactions between the many species that share it—are each hugely complicated. In models a small tweak to any one variable can change dramatically the number and type of species that can coexist. Measuring them in the wild is also dauntingly difficult. There were also theoretical reversals. It turned out that any differences between species could allow them to coexist, so theorizing about or looking for a minimum difference seems meaningless. This made it seem as if the problem was why there were so few species, not so many. Even in a jar, one species can’t eliminate another solely through competition. There must be some other factor causing extinction. This factor could simply be chance, a random fluctuation



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement