Monday, November 02, 2009

Another problem with the ecosystem metaphor

Lay commentators - including yours truly - have a weakness for using the biological communities as a metaphor for social interactions, particularly business competition. No matter the litany of quibbles (see my own at Eco mumbo jumbo); it's just so tempting to talk about a business ecosystem!

A recent News Focus piece in Science (Erik Stokstad, On the Origin of Ecological Structure, Science 2 October 2009, Vol. 326. no. 5949, pp. 33 - 35; there's also an interview with Stokstad in the podcast of 2 October, 2009) raises a more fundamental problem with the utility of the metaphor: ecologists themselves are still struggling to understand what dictates the kinds and proportions of organisms in communities ranging from meadows to montane forests.

Stokstad writes that "there is still no consensus on the relative importance of the various forces [that influence community formation, like competition, predation, and disturbance]. Darwin and many later ecologists emphasized competition among species, but proponents of a controversial theory of biodiversity that assumes competition has no impact argue that immigration and other random demographic events can account for much of the apparent makeup of communities. As a result, ecologists have a long way to go to come up with formulas that predict how communities might arise and change."

If ecologists can't explain community dynamics in biology, it's dangerous to make inferences by analogy about the influence of (say) competition and disturbance in commercial systems. Which is a pity, since that's just what I've tried to do myself...