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Some directions in ecological theory

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The role of theory within ecology has changed dramatically in recent decades. Once primarily a source of qualitative conceptual framing, ecological theories and models are now often used to develop quantitative explanations of empirical patterns and to project future dynamics of specific ecological systems. In this essay, I recount my own experience of this transformation, in which accelerating computing power and the widespread incorporation of stochastic processes into ecological theory combined to create some novel integration of mathematical and statistical models. This stronger integration drives theory towards incorporating more biological realism, and I explore ways in which we can grapple with that realism to generate new general theoretical insights. This enhanced realism, in turn, may lead to frameworks for projecting ecological responses to anthropogenic change, which is, arguably, the central challenge for 21st-century ecology. In an era of big data and synthesis, ecologists are increasingly seeking to infer causality from observational data; but conventional biometry provides few tools for this project. This is a realm where theorists can and should play an important role, and I close by pointing towards some analytical and philosophical approaches developed in our sister discipline of economics that address this very problem. While I make no grand prognostications about the likely discoveries of ecological theory over the coming century, you will find in this essay a scattering of more or less far-fetched ideas that I, at least, think are interesting and (possibly) fruitful directions for our field.

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