Botkin on the Nekola Review

Here’s Botkin’s take on the Nekola review referred to by Guy here.

It is interesting that it arrived just a few days after I learned from the 2013 USA Best Book Awards that my book “has been honored as a ‘Finalist’ in the ‘Science: General’ category: The Moon in the Nautilus Shell: Discordant Harmonies Reconsidered by Daniel B. Botkin Oxford University Press, USA 978-0-199913916.” There were only five such finalists. (See

The important position of Nekola is revealed in the middle of the article with his statement that “Botkin spends almost two chapters talking about how essential disturbance, particularly fire, is to the maintenance of diversity in many USA grassland and conifer forest communities. However, he then chooses to ignore the accumulating empirical evidence documenting catastrophic biodiversity losses across many taxa groups following the reintroduction of fire into reserves (e.g., [8,9]). Such works suggest that the widespread improper use of fire management represent [sic] one of the single most harmful immediate threats to biodiversity within the USA today.”

What the writer ignores and apparently misunderstands is that the destructive fires he refers to occurred after fire suppression widely promoted by Smokey the Bear. Within the level of detail appropriate for this kind of trade book, Chapter 10, “Fire in the Forest: Managing Living Resources,” reviews examples of just this type of misunderstanding and discusses the work by Wally Covington and the proper role of light, frequent fires. Since the book was published, I have been working with experienced forester Bob Williams, recently named Conservationist of the Year by the New Jersey Audubon society, for his decades of work developing management plans for commercial foresters in the pine barrens. These plans make continued use of carefully designed prescribed burns, which not only made the forest owners money but improved biodiversity and other ecologically desirable qualities. So this paragraph by Nekola is the tip-off to where he is coming from — although he claims to have long accepted non-steady-state characteristics of ecological systems, he continues to repeat one of the old refrains, that disturbance is ultimately bad.

Nekola also writes, “The voluminous work done on neutral community assemblage, nonequilibrium disturbance, complex ecological systems, fracticality and other forms of nonlinear dynamics, and the role of stochasticism and entropy (e.g., [4–7]) is simply not discussed. Given these topics include some of the most active areas of ecological research over the past two decades, it is hard to justify why they were not reviewed.”

Given this focus on the importance of ecological scientific literature since the 1990s, it is odd that he does not mention my book’s lengthy discussions about stochastic processes, as in my own work with the JABOWA forest model and such things as the first quantitative estimation of the probability of extinction of any species. I am familiar with the literature Nekola discusses, but this was meant to be a trade book, not an academic review of all the relevant literature. Nekola reviews it as if it should be the latter. For example, he cites Gleick, J. (1987) Chaos: Making a New Science (Penguin Books). I discuss chaos theory in Chapter 8, The Forest in the Computer: New Metaphors for Nature and explain the faults with the idea and what it could really mean. But citing and discussing in detail a book like Gleick’s was inappropriate for the level of discussion, and the intended audience, and the length of the book (which already exceeded what Oxford University Press considered appropriate for a trade book).

Nekola also cites John Harte (2011), Maximum Entropy and Ecology: A Theory of Abundance, Distribution, and Energetics (Oxford University Press). I have known John Harte since he and I were on the faculty at Yale, and we used to meet for lunch and discuss ecology. I believe those discussions helped John move from physics into ecology. His book is a highly sophisticated discussion of the laws of thermodynamics and ecology, but not so much about non-steady-state in the way that was appropriate for my book and its audience.

It is also unfortunate that although Nekola cites other from the 1990s and later decades, he does not cite the original 1990 edition of my book, Discordant Harmonies, which was an influential factor in the shift to thinking about non-steady-state systems, and which he cites others from that and later decades. Instead, he cites a reprint, which I had never heard of before, and have to check with Oxford University Press to find out if any permission was given for this reproduction, or whether this is an illegal reprint. (He cites Botkin, D.B. (2001) Discordant Harmonies, A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century. Replica Books.) Of course, the original was published by Oxford University Press in 1990, and had a significant effect on exactly the kind of thinking that Nekola says was common when he was a graduate student.

My primary concern about the books Nekola cites and much current ecological scientific literature is that they end up much more in the camp of a steady-state view of ecological systems than they argue for the kind of fundamental change that is my book’s thesis. The best analogy that comes to mind is the way climatological modelers on the one hand acknowledge, through the graphs they publish, the ever-changing characteristic of climate, but then go on to conclude—to make a moral warning of it— that we have “destabilized” Earth’s climate. You cannot destabilize a system that has never been stable, as I explain in the book. The range of literature that Nekola refers to tends to falls into this trap.

As another example, I just gave a keynote talk at an international Forest Biomass Conference sponsored by IUFRO, where I discussed current estimates of carbon sequestering used in both the basic scientific literature and in plans to develop carbon offset agreements. I and my coauthors show that the carbon sequestering estimates in use by IPCC and in the major scientific reviews are not statistically valid, have no estimates of statistical error and also assume that forests can store carbon at a fixed amount—i.e. in a steady state—taking us back to the balance of nature. Furthermore, these overestimate the realistic storage by as much as 2.7 times. (See for examples, Keith, H., B.G. Mackey, et al. 2009. Re-evaluation of forest biomass carbon stocks and lessons from the world’s most carbon-dense forests. PNAS 106(28):11635–11640, and Houghton, R.A., (2005). Aboveground forest biomass and the global carbon balance. Global Change Biology 11, 945-958.) This is an example of the way that the balance-of-nature idea keeps getting into the current scientific and applied literature, in indirect and therefore subtle ways.

Within the limits that are reasonable for a trade book, I did my best to present the value of looking at stochastic processes and other phenomena. If the book were intended to be an ecological monograph for researchers in the field only, I would have written it very differently, filled with academic details.

Reading this review, I am reminded of what Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine, wrote and I quote in my book: When something is suggested, or some evidence is produced, the first response [of scientific colleagues] is “It can’t possibly be true.” And then, after a bit, the next response is, “Well, if it’s true, it’s not very important.” And then the third response is, “Well, we’ve known it all along.” The basic message of Nokela’s review is: Okay fellows, we can keep doing what we’ve been doing—despite our use of certain methodologies, we can continue to work using the old assumptions In Salk’s phrasing, “we’ve known it all along.”

So that the book can be completely dismissed, Nekola writes that “Botkin uncritically recounts a now 35-year-old paper that purports to show the importance of multiscale interactions, with planetary orbital factors influencing the construction of individual cephalopod shells. Unfortunately, immediately upon publication, this work was shown to be based on faulty assumptions and has now been widely discounted [11].”

Although my book was published in 2012, the writing of it was essentially done before 2010. (I actually had started with a different publishing house but then returned to Oxford, so the book took quite a while from writing to publication.) The citation Nekola refers to— Landman, N.H., and Cochran, J.K. (2010), Growth and longevity of Nautilus, in Nautilus: The Biology and Paleobiology of a Living Fossil (Saunders, W.B., and Landman, N.H., eds), pp. 401–420, Springer- Verlag— was therefore not available to me. The article I was aware of, relevant to this story was “Natural Rates of Growth and Longevity of Nautilus belauensis. W. Bruce Saunders, Paleobiology, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Summer, 1983), pp. 280-288. In that article the authors wrote, “The growth line counts of Kahn and Pompea (and their resulting claims regarding lunar orbital evolution) have been criticized by several authors (Hughes 1979; Jones and Thompson 1979; Saunders and Ward 1979): growth lines are difficult to count objectively, they may fluctuate in spacing and strength, and they are not known to be daily.” I had interpreted as critical, but not as dismissing the moon in the nautilus shell story. Not being an expert on marine invertebrates, I will now have to do a literature review of this book and its citations and see if it is consistent that the story should be completely dismissed. Science is a process, and science marches on. As I write in my textbook, Environmental Science: Earth as a Living Planet, chapter 2 on the scientific method, “Science is a process of discovery—a continuing process whose essence is change in ideas. The fact that scientific ideas change is frustrating.” Having put my heart and soul into this book, I hope that the strengths of the book elsewhere will compensate for the fact that science is a process and that what appears to be correct in one time may later be shown to no longer be the case.

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1 Response to Botkin on the Nekola Review

  1. Pingback: Fires Bad for “Biodiversity”? | A New Century of Forest Planning

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