‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’
My first karate instructor once told me this, as he looked at me straight in the eyes. In my mind he was massive, a towering figure that had survived feudal Japan and somehow manifested as an East Londoner. Once I had looked back at some old photos I realised he was 65 and probably around 5.4ft. Nevertheless, he left a very distinctive mark on my young mind. I took the advice at face value at the time; learn more martial arts before you start running around thinking you know it all. Yet I recently found myself applying this statement to my own scientific musings.
The study of ecosystems is a young field, with the synthesis of underlying ideas from geography and natural history occurring gradually (somewhat ecologically even!) at the end of the 19th century. For a long time the study of biology was restricted to the gathering of samples in order to document which species existed, to describe their physiology and record their behaviour. The new science of ecology sought to analyse the numbers, births, deaths, movements and all manner of changes in organism’s populations. This is all very exciting and ambitious stuff, and it relies on vast quantities of information. You need to go out and find animals and plants, record where they are and where they are not at regular intervals over extended periods of time, this is no mean feat.
I am often struck about how little we actually know about the world’s animals and plants. OK, so many species are hard to spot, present in very small numbers and in remote locations. The places where lots of humans live and work have been transformed and many animals and plants we historically shared habitats with have gone. Even so, the amount of knowledge we have today is pretty small, when compared to other fields.
The marine census being carried out worldwide at the moment is presented as a breakthrough, a global stocktaking of what we have in the world’s seas. I am surprised and shocked that no one has considered anything of such a nature before. Individual nations have records of fisheries abundance as this is something that has direct economic concerns but these records are weak and patchy outside of certain states and particular fish stocks. Censuses of human populations have been carried out for thousands of years, analysis of voting trends and consumer information has reached amazing levels, stock taking and yield analysis in agriculture is widespread, yet so little time and effort has been placed globally on the millions of other species that share the earth with us.
The fact that we know little is worrying, the fact that we are trying to predict things when we know so little is even more worrying. The acknowledgement that our knowledge of ecological systems and the data behind them is often uncertain, patchy or biased has dragged behind the science of modelling these systems.
Modelling methods developed in economics, statistics, physics and engineering are all being applied to ecological problems. Yet very few address the fundamental issue that we only know a tiny fraction of what is going on out there. Natural systems are very different to nearly all man made systems; if we build an energy grid or transport system we know all the links in it. The same cannot be said for a food web, there are so many uncertain links. Ecology is a big deal; other organisms determine what we eat, the air we breathe, our climate and our water supply. All these things are essential to human life. Essential, that is the important word here, the consumer price index, the nature of radioactive decay, advances in oil drilling efficiency, IPods, medicine, transport and money are all useful, all make life easier (In many cases a great deal easier) but are not essential every day for humans to live. Ecology is the science of food, air and water security. I am still surprised that there is little knowledge, because it is becoming an increasingly dangerous thing.