Saturday, November 07, 2009

ixNay on the ifeLay istoryHay volutionEay

I have been doing a lot of reading of the life-history evolution literature. It turns out there is a lot of it. About 1200 papers are published each year in journals followed by Web of Science using the phrase "life history evolution." These are in a hugely wide range of journals. What I am coming to realize is that the phrase has been overused and broadened to the point that it is nearly meaningless. A study of egg size relative to adult size can be labeled life-history evolution. A study comparing daily activity patterns between males and females can be labeled life history evolution. A study of age at first reproduction can be labeled life-history evolution. Perhaps more troubling for the field, life-history evolution has come to be viewed very much as natural history is. Natural history, the basic facts about what a species does, what the individuals and groups are like, what their habitat is and so on is tremendously important to know when studying a species, but it doesn't get grants, citations or jobs because it is often only relevant to those studying that particular species, and the methods and conclusions are rarely ground breaking. Life history evolution has come to be seen in the same way, likely explaining why there is no journal society or regular meeting for Life History Evolution.

This stigma may help explain why so few biologists wade into the deep rich pools of unasked questions lining the boundaries between evolutionary biology and demography. Such work is quickly labeled as life-history evolution, and despite being novel, important and of general interest, suspected of having the same failings as the rest of the field. The name demographers prefer for this intersection, evolutionary biodemography, does not on the face of it sound like a task for biologists. As I learned from Crayola, green-blue is a type of blue, not a type of green. Evolutionary biodemography is by extension part of demography, not part of biology. This thinking applies despite the fact that many of the publications in evobiodemo are from biologists rather than demographers.

I briefly mentioned some of this to my boss, who is a demographer by training, but one of the leading advocates of the idea that demography and biology need to learn from each other more. He suggested I organize a small conference at the institute, inviting both biologists and demographers. The institute has had these types of meetings before, mostly inviting established people who already blend the two fields, and interesting papers and collaborations have come out of it, but little lasting progress. The people who were already aware of both fields remained aware of both fields, and those who weren't continued not to care. So my thought, now that I've been invited to organize a small conference, is to invite biologists and demographers early in their careers, who work on similar topics, but within their own fields. A few biologists who work on juvenile dispersal patterns, and a few demographers who work on juvenile dispersal patterns, each of which may have little awareness of the fact that other people in the other field wonder about remarkably similar questions. Other sets who work on infant mortality, population responses to natural disasters, cohabitation, etc. Let them present their work, let them make the explicit case of what the other field can learn from them, and then let them present on what they would like to know or get from the other field. A workshop on demography and evolution for early career scientists. I'll add it to my to do list.

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