Friday, May 31, 2013

Some ways you might not expect your research to be used

Most ecologists recognize that ecological knowledge is a tool, with useful applications to conservation and management, recreation, and ecosystem services and goods. Many of us have even written or said something suggesting uses for our work, no matter how likely. But few ecologists expect their research to be cited for military applications or support for the superiority of capitalism.

For example, a recent editorial in the New York Times detailed how conservation of biodiversity became part of American Cold War strategies. In those days, the American military was considering the role for ‘environmental warfare’, and the research of Charles Elton, who wrote of the dangers of simplifying landscapes by reducing biodiversity resonated. Strategists advocated maintaining biodiversity in food supplies and stockpiles (wisdom which transcends the military motivation). Ecological research into invasive species has also informed the US military in modern times. For example, the report "Invasive Threats to the American Homeland" considers the possibility of introduced species being used as terrorist weapons. Such introduced species might be crop parasites or vectors for human diseases, theoretically wreaking economic, structural, and human costs. 

Sometimes attempts to adapt research to other uses fall rather short of the mark. Evolutionary biology is not unfamiliar with this: for example, the misapplication of evolution to social Darwinism and some of the ideas touted in evolutionary psychology misrepresent evolutionary theory. This can happen in ecology too. A recent PNAS paper presented the result that evolutionary diversity increases ecosystem productivity. One writer in the Washington Post blogging community presented this finding as evidence that capitalist concepts like division of labour are found even in nature. It seems difficult to accept the link the writer attempts to make (the title is rather over the top as well: “Darwin’s free market wisdom: division of labor starts in the genes”). The writer states that nature wouldn’t exhibit a relationship between diversity and higher productivity if it wasn’t optimal, so “[t]he same findings would also appear to suggest that species, like humans, are not all created equal and some are more adept at certain tasks than others.” Therefore, apparently, capitalism is superior to communism. 

This kind of thing makes me think that Darwin was lucky that he did not live to see his words and ideas so frequently misquoted and misapplied (although he certainly suffered this during his own lifetime). This is the danger of sending an idea or result into the world: you no longer fully control how it is used and understood. A successful idea is one that, for better or worse, has an independent life. 

(There are probably many misapplications or unusual uses of ecology and evolution that I haven't thought of. If you think of other examples, feel free to mention them in the comments.)

1 comment:

Hans Castorp said...

it is much too easy to say that the journalist of the Washington Post misunderstood - he understood much too well. I dont' like simplistic sociology of science, but the Weltanschauung underlying it is exactly that indicated by the writer. And about Darwin, not only he was immedtialy interpreted in the sense of social darwinism, but he was clever enough to present his ideas in a manner perfeclty matching the malthusianism of the time. Wallace presented natural selection in a version much closer to the modern one, and was lost in oblivion.