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Online book club forming for “The Theory of Ecological Communities”

If you follow me on Twitter or obsessively read the comments of the Dynamic Ecology blog, you’ll know that I’ve been excited about the publication of Mark Vellend’s new book, The Theory of Ecological Communities, for many months. The book happened to come out just around the time of the ESA meeting, so the publishers rushed a half-dozen copies to the conference, one of which ended up in my suitcase. This year, my summer vacation follows ESA, and so this new book has become my vacation reading. Although I try to avoid working while on vacation [1] and with young children, a vacation is really just a “vacation” in name only – going into an office is way less exhausting than taking care of young ‘uns, I have not done well this time around. [2] A paper got through review faster than I was expecting, so I’ve worked on proofs; I got an unexpected and well-paid very-short-term contract job that I didn’t want to turn down; and I got excited about Mark’s book. Of course, what counts as “work” is a gray area, when you like your job, like most of us do. That’s not to say we like all parts of our jobs, though. So this vacation, I’m trying to not do the parts I don’t like, and allow myself to do some of the parts I do like. Like reading. (And, apparently, organizing a book club.)

Anyway, pre-child, I’d be done with The Theory of Ecological Communities by now. But I’m not because, well, I have little kids. Instead, I’m through the first of three sections of the book. And I’ve been enjoying it. A big fan of Vellend 2010, I found these first chapters went by quickly, mostly reviewing and fleshing out a bit the main tenets of the 2010 paper. They are quite clearly laying the groundwork for the next two sections, which I am very much looking forward to.

One big reason why I have been and continue to be excited about this book is that as a student I hungered for a way to organize my thinking about community ecology, and never felt satisfied. Coming into ecology with a strong math and computer background, but little ecological knowledge, I looked for how to conceptually organize the field. Where do I start? What classes should I take? What are the big questions of our time? I think I even asked my advisors directly about these things in the first couple years. The only organizing structure that I felt was compelling was the distinction among organismal biology, population ecology, community ecology, and ecosystem ecology. (I was unfamiliar with macrosystem ecology back then.) And that didn’t help me think about all the stuff within community ecology.

In the Tilman lab, everything was about competition. But in the Packer lab, behavior mattered. I took on a disease project, and found disease ecology to be almost its own field. When I spent time as a visiting grad student in the Leibold lab, suddenly dispersal was a much bigger deal than competition. I then got interested in food webs and predation. But I couldn’t figure out how to fit everything together into a coherent whole. I took an ecological theory class, but I couldn’t figure out where the forefront of the field was in order to try to contribute. I turned away from theory and did experimental and modeling work. And – to be very frank – my pure community ecology chapters from my dissertation are as yet unpublished because I can’t figure out how to frame them well within the general context of community ecology. The number of ideas and papers and models in community ecology have seemed so numerous and so vaguely connected that I feel like I can’t wrap my mind around them to see where my research fits.

As a result, Mark’s framework for fitting all of community ecology onto a simple scaffold is very appealing. I am actually reading the book with an eye to publishing one community ecology dissertation chapter, and it’s already helping to clarify my thinking. This book is also awesome for its references list. I seriously wish I could have read this book as a second-year grad student. The history chapter is brief, but cites most – if not all – of the big papers in community ecology that you should read as a community ecology grad student. I’ve put a few cited papers that I’ve overlooked on my must-read list. [3] The references list even includes a citation to a blog post, which makes me unreasonably happy. Maybe this is the first blog post citation in a Princeton Press monograph? Jeremy will have to buy the book to find out which post of his it is…

It turns out that I’m not the only one excited about The Theory of Ecological Communities. I handful of us who grabbed the book at ESA and others who ordered it directly decided via Twitter to start a “book club” – a discussion group where we read the book chapter-by-chapter and discuss it. Since we’re all over the place geographically, we decided to do video calls for our discussions. So I set up a sign-up sheet, figuring we might get 6 or 8 or 10 people who were interested – a group or two. But as of now, there are 28 people signed up, ranging from grad students to tenured profs and spanning three continents.

I totally was not planning to organize a large international book club on my vacation, but life is full of surprises. If you want to get in on the crazy experiment that is this book club, sign up and get the book. (You can order from Princeton Press or buy on Amazon. Interlibrary Loan takes longer, but is cheaper.) The first discussion groups will begin next week, but I’m pretty sure there are going to be more groups starting mid-to-late September, as there are several people who haven’t been able to get the book yet who want to talk about it. The idea is to read a chapter per week and meet for an hour to discuss. That’s about it.

I’ve really enjoyed the two book discussion groups I’ve been part of as an ecologist (reading this and this). Those have been in-person, though, so we’ll see how online groups work out. If you’ve got any experience with online book discussion groups – or any pointers in general – please do leave a comment below.

Sign up for The Theory of Ecological Communities Book Club

Permanent link to this article: http://ecologybits.com/index.php/2016/08/30/online-book-club-forming-for-the-theory-of-ecological-communities/

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  1. Simon Leather

    Great post – I will certainly buy the book, although probably won’t join you (at least formally) in the book club

  2. Renee Perry

    My training was as a population biologist. I’m curious why there’s an interested in unifying theory of communities, especially one based in population genetics, when the evolution of communities has so much site specificity.

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      I think people have always been interested in the question of whether there ARE ways to say general things about community ecology that aren’t site-specific. I know there are people that start with the idea that all of community ecology is necessarily site-specific, but that’s not true of population biology or ecosystem ecology. So is it definitely true of community ecology? My guess is probably not. But it’s hard to tease out commonalities the way research has been done in this discipline — especially with so much site/system specific experimental and observational work as its foundation. Vellend’s book uses MacArthur and Wilson’s Theory of Island Biogeography as the modern starting point. Their theory explains stuff across many systems. But how would you incorporate something like competition or predation or mutualism into it? Mark Vellend doesn’t have all the answers (nor does he claim to), but he suggests a starting point for thinking about how to link all sorts of existing theory, experimentation, and observational studies. And I think that’s why people are excited.

  3. Pavel Dodonov

    Inspired by yours and, afterwards, Jeremy’s posts, I bought this book and I’m finding it awesome. So thank you for writing about it!

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