I’m sure most every scientist in almost any discipline feels that her or his particular knowledge quest is “the most important”. Admittedly, there are some branches of science that are more applied than others – I have yet to be convinced, for example, that string theory has an immediate human application, whereas medical science certainly does provide answers to useful questions regarding human health. But the passion for one’s own particular science discipline likely engenders a sort of tunnel vision about its intrinsic importance.
So it comes down to how one defines ‘important’. I’m not advocating in any way that application or practicality should be the only yardstick to ascertain importance. I think superficially impractical, ‘blue-skies’ theoretical endeavours are essential precursors to all so-called applied sciences. I’ll even go so far as to say that there is fundamentally no such thing as a completely unapplied science discipline or question. As I’ve said many times before, ‘science’ is a brick wall of evidence, where individual studies increase the strength of the wall to a point where we can call it a ‘theory’. Occasionally a study comes along and smashes the wall (paradigm shift), at which point we begin to build a new one.
Back to my provocative title. A long-standing joke among science disciplines is the smugness with which practitioners of the traditionally ‘hard’ science disciplines (maths, physics and chemistry) view their ‘soft’ scientist contemporaries (life scientists). Being a life scientist (biologist/ecologist), this might sound like sour grapes, but I’m well past any naïve inferiority complexes inferred by this patently incorrect categorisation. Perhaps once there might have been an element of truth to that hierarchical arrangement, but certainly no more. Biology has become a truly ‘hard’ science in the sense that it’s all about the maths underlying the conclusions pertaining to biological mechanisms. If anything, I feel a little smug now towards physicists and chemists because we have to deal with decidedly more chaotic, unpredictable and complex systems than their relatively controlled and precise universes.
As the old saying goes: “It’s not rocket science”. I think instead that we should be saying “It isn’t ecology” when we are sarcastically referring to simple (i.e., not complex) systems.
So my title isn’t about navel-gazing smugness or an ingrained inferiority – it’s about human survival. Medical scientists have for long claimed the moral high ground here in that they directly treat individual ailments, and many have ventured into the realm of societal ‘health’. Ecology, by its very etymology, implies a more holistic view of ‘survival’, because it examines what makes populations (and species) fluctuate in time and space, and conservation ecology views this more from the perspective of what makes populations (and species) persist or go extinct.
Of course, Homo sapiens is just another species and so falls under the umbrella of ecology on the macro scale, insofar as our ‘success’ is intrinsically a function of the success of other species. As I emphasise repeatedly in this blog and in my research in general, our health, wealth and general well being are so tightly correlated with the intactness of the ecosystems in which we are embedded that we ignore them at our peril. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the money we make are all a function of ecosystem health.
As our addled life-support system (spaceship Earth) is stressed further and further by our insatiable lust for resources, exacerbated by a continually rising population (7 billion and growing), quantifying these links is become more essential each day. More importantly, finding ways to reverse the damage is an implicit component of ecology. So I argue quite strongly that ecology is now possibly one of the most ‘important’ science disciplines because it is the only scientific line of inquiry that deals with these planetary-wide problems for humanity. Of course, agriculture, economics and energy provision are inter alia part of this equation, so healthy doses of multi- and transdisciplinarity are essential additions to the ecological toolbox.