American Society of Naturalists

A membership society whose goal is to advance and to diffuse knowledge of organic evolution and other broad biological principles so as to enhance the conceptual unification of the biological sciences.

Symposium: “An effective mutualism? The role of theoretical studies in ecology and evolution”

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Maria R. Servedio (Feb 2020)

What is the role of, and challenges faced by, theoretical studies in ecology and evolution?

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In an introductory article to the 2018 Vice-Presidential Symposium collection Maria Servedio briefly reviews how common theory is, how it is perceived by empiricists, and how assumptions made in theoretical studies can pose a challenge to the acceptance of theory. She includes a survey that shows how often citations of theoretical studies in non-theoretical studies are perceived by the theoretical authors as specific and appropriate, as just general to topic, or as incorrect. Although communication of theory to non-theoreticians leaves something to be desired, Servedio includes some recommendations for how the situation might be improved.

The article also previews the variety of theoretical papers that comprise the contributions to the Vice-Presidential Symposium collection, including articles by Erol Akçay (on evolution of the game in game theory), Emma Goldberg and Jasmine Foo (on memory in trait macroevolution), Sarah Otto and Alirio Rosales (on the role of narrative in theoretical studies), Paula Vasconcelos and Claus Rueffler (on the evolution of resource specialization), Stephan Peischl and Kimberly Gilbert (on range expansion), Jason Sardell and Mark Kirkpatrick (on sex differences in recombination), and Hanna Kokko (on facultative sex).


Theoretical models often have fundamentally different goals than do empirical studies of the same topic. Models can test the logic of existing hypotheses, explore the plausibility of new hypotheses, provide expectations that can be tested with data, and address aspects of topics that are currently inaccessible empirically. Theoretical models are common in ecology and evolution, and are generally well-cited, but I show that many citations appearing in non-theoretical studies are general to topic and a substantial proportion are incorrect. One potential cause of this pattern is that some functions of models are rather abstract, leading to miscommunication between theoreticians and empiricists. Such misunderstandings are often triggered by simplifying, logistical assumptions that modelers make. The 2018 Vice Presidential Symposium of the American Society of Naturalists included a variety of mathematical models in ecology and evolution from across several topics. Common threads that appear in the use of the models are identified, highlighting the power of a theoretical approach and the role of the assumptions that such models make.