by Anna Dvorak*
In his lecture “Laws of nature, historical contingency, and the wolves and moose of Isle Royale,” Dr. John A. Vucetich seeks to explain a new approach to the study of ecology that he uses with the Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Project, which is the largest, continuously running predator/prey study in the world. In his study of population dynamics on the island, he believes that unlike other scientific fields, like chemistry or physics, ecology is not strictly law-based. Instead it is better studied like other historical events. He refers to this as historical contingency and he defines his process in two parts. This process explains population dynamics through a series of disparate random events, each of which has a legacy that has effects comparable in length to the waiting time in between these events. Each candidate event is crucial to understanding the predator/prey relationship on Isle Royale and more specifically the predation rate of the moose. Such candidate events in his analysis include novel disease, catastrophic winter, genetic rescue by introducing new wolves to the island, and the end of positive effects from the genetic rescue. Periods in between these candidate events are characterized as either top-down or bottom-up. It is these individual events that can be quantifiably explained and then compared to the laws of nature.
By conducting his analysis in this manner, Vucetich argues that his work goes beyond just understanding the shifts in predator/prey relationships as regime shifts. However, this also necessitates long-term ecological research, which is in many case studies is not available. This is also true in Vucetich’s work; despite the 56 years Isle Royale has been studied more data could be had. Although historical contingency emphasizes how ecologists conduct their work, they are limited in predicting what will happen in the future, but can analyze trends in the past.
This lecture was coordinated with participation from professors Jake Hamblin (Director of Environmental Arts and Humanities), Mark Harmon (FES, LTER), and Julia Jones (Geosciences, LTER). They offered commentary from their various fields on Vucetich’s work and its implications, but also sought to show the weaknesses in the study from their perspectives outside of the project. All commentators agreed that natural law was not the only way to study ecology and relationships played a more crucial role. Although, how exactly the study of ecology, and Vucetich’s project in particular, could be done and how effective it would be without the sole of use of natural law remained uncertain. Being conducted in this manner, this lecture format allowed for a greater understanding of the immediate research, but also how it could include ideas from other fields. It also seemed more helpful to the presenter who received more directed comments and not just questions from audience members.
*Anna Dvorak is a Ph.D. student in History of Science at Oregon State University.