Rosindell, Hubbell, and Etienne. (2011). The unified neutral theory of biodiversity and biogeography at age ten.
I would argue that neutral theory is not only the most controversial idea, but also the most successful idea to permeate community ecology in the last ten years. A quick keyword search suggests that ~30 ecological papers related to the topic were published in the last year, including some with titles still reflecting the controversy; “Different but equal: the implausible assumption at the heart of neutral theory”. Neutral theory makes a seemingly unreasonable assumption—that species identity doesn’t matter—and yet seems to predict species-area relationships and species abundance distributions as well or better than niche theory does. This made it an infuriating challenge for many ecologists. The number and quality of papers that it inspired—both in support and opposition—are a reminder that disagreement is good for science.
It’s been a decade since the publication of “The Unified Neutral Theory of Biodiversity and Biogeography”, in which Steve Hubbell proposed a controversial model in which coexistence results from drift, dispersal and speciation, rather than ecological differences between species. To mark this anniversary, a review in TREE by James Rosindell, Stephen Hubbell, and Rampal Etienne reflects on neutral theory’s first ten years, and examine the influence neutral theory has had in many areas of community ecology. The authors also note that some of the limitations of neutral theory can be dealt with by extending the classic formulation of the model, so that unrealistic assumptions related to spatial structure, speciation rates, or the zero-sum assumption can be relaxed. The excessive interest in neutral theory’s species-abundance predictions left its other predictions unexamined, and there is still room for tests of how neutral theory informs species-time relationships, modes of speciation, and even conservation decisions.
Despite these accomplishments, the review is remarkably subdued, underlined by statements such as neutral theory is a “good starting point”, a “valuable null model”, and a “useful baseline”. However, it seems unnecessary to state, as some have, that "neutral theory is dead". Its legacy, captured in the final paragraphs, is still incredibly important: “…niches have dominated our attention and left less obvious, but still important processes forgotten… Perhaps the most important contribution of neutral theory has been to highlight the key roles of dispersal limitation, speciation and ecological drift, by showing how much can be explained by these processes alone...”
George Box said it best: “All models are wrong, but some are useful”.