Mind Games 2.0

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Did Hutchinson Think Niches Were Non-Interesting?

One of the foundational concepts in modern ecology is the formulation of the “niche” by G. Evelyn Hutchinson. Hutchinson defined his conception of the niche famously as an “N-dimensional hypervolume” of environmental variables that describe where a species can maintain a population.  You can find a (pirated) pdf of this seminal paper here or the Cold Spring Harbor site if your conscience is bothering you and want to pay for it because you don’t have a library subscription.

When I read this paper in graduate school, I was dumbfounded to find one of the most glaring typographical errors I had ever seen in the scientific literature.  In this paper, the plain text on the page says that the realized niches of co-occurring species are non-interesting.  

Here is an image of the critical page, with the critical sentence (boxed in red) blown up so that it is clear.  This is the critical sentence of the paper where he states the central conclusion about the niches of two species that live together, and it is immediately above the iconic figure of the paper.

Page 421 from G. E. Hutchinson's 1958 paper in which he defines his concept of the niche.

Page 421 from G. E. Hutchinson’s 1958 paper in which he defines his concept of the niche.

If you don’t believe me, pull out your copy of Hutchinson’s niche paper and see for yourself.

Hutchinson clearly meant to write “non-intersecting”, but instead, “non-interesting” made it into this pivotal sentence.  Some form of the word “intersect” appears in the paper 12 times, and this section of the paper where the error appears is entitled “Rarity and commonness of species and the non-intersection of realized niches.”

When I read this sentence in graduate school, I almost fell out of my chair.  I couldn’t believe that such an ironic mistake could be made.  (You see, I’ve never been a fan of Hutchinson’s niche concept.  I much prefer Elton’s (1927. Animal Ecology.  MacMillan Co. pgs. 63-64) formulation of the niche as the occupation of the species [i.e., “there goes the vicar”, pg. 64].)  I also couldn’t believe that no one had ever mentioned such a blunder to me.  I had a xerox of this page with this sentence circled on my office door for years.  

It’s been 34 years since I first read this paper.  In those 34 years, I have asked many of my ecologist colleagues if they had noticed this typo, and I have never met another person who caught this mistake. 

This is one of the seminal papers of my scientific discipline.  What does it say about we scientists that nobody ever sees this?  I think one thing it says is that very few scientists actually read papers very carefully.  

The second thing that I know is true is that younger scientists today never read papers that are more than a few years old. We rely far, far too much today on review papers and never go back to carefully read the primary works.  I find this shameful, and I often think that review papers should be completely banned because of this and other forms of collateral damage they inflict (e.g., see also issues about impact factors).

The other thing I have imagined since graduate school is that this was not a mistake at all, but rather a subliminal message from Hutchinson that he was just fooling us with this concept.  Again, and as I’ve said in print, I have never been enamored with Hutchinson’s conception of the niche because it focuses exclusively on resource competition to the exclusion of all other types of species interactions.  

Or finally, perhaps this was Hutchinson’s way of telling us to not take ourselves too seriously.  If so, that would have been very good advice.

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1 Comment

  1. William Godsoe

    I was recently re-reading this paper, and bob Holt pointed out to me that Hutchinson attributes his fundamental/realized niche terminology to MacArthur. A foot note I’d missed until a careful re-read, and a though that I will remember every time I hear someone describe “Hutchinson’s niche”.

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