The Theory of Island Biogeography Revisited

The Theory of Island Biogeography Revisited

The Theory of Island Biogeography Revisited

The Theory of Island Biogeography Revisited


Robert H. MacArthur and Edward O. Wilson's The Theory of Island Biogeography, first published by Princeton in 1967, is one of the most influential books on ecology and evolution to appear in the past half century. By developing a general mathematical theory to explain a crucial ecological problem--the regulation of species diversity in island populations--the book transformed the science of biogeography and ecology as a whole. In The Theory of Island Biogeography Revisited, some of today's most prominent biologists assess the continuing impact of MacArthur and Wilson's book four decades after its publication. Following an opening chapter in which Wilson reflects on island biogeography in the 1960s, fifteen chapters evaluate and demonstrate how the field has extended and confirmed--as well as challenged and modified--MacArthur and Wilson's original ideas. Providing a broad picture of the fundamental ways in which the science of island biogeography has been shaped by MacArthur and Wilson's landmark work, The Theory of Island Biogeography Revisited also points the way toward exciting future research.


Robert M. May

INSOFAR AS ANY ONE EVENT can be said to mark the coming of age of ecological science as a discipline with a theoretical/conceptual base, it is the publication in 1967 of MacArthur and Wilson's Theory of Island Biogeography, the inaugural “Monograph in Population Biology” in the Princeton University Press series.

It is easy to forget how young a science ecology is. We did not start a systematic naming and codification of the plants and animals we share the world with until a century after Newton and the founding of the world's major scientific academies (the canonical date for Linnaeus's De Rerum Naturae is 1758; for the founding of the Royal Society, 1660). The very word ecology is not much more than a century old, and in 2009 neither of the two oldest ecological societies has yet attained its century (the British Ecological Society was established in 1913, the Ecological Society of America in 1915).

One way of accounting for the development of any particular area of the natural sciences comes from the classic sequence of Brahe, Kepler, Newton: systematic observation and description; tentative patterns that give coherence to the observed facts; fundamental ideas or laws that explain the patterns. This characterization of the quest for real understanding as a journey from asking “what” questions to asking “why” questions is a deliberate oversimplification, but I think it is nevertheless useful.

The early years of ecological science are largely Brahe, verging into Kepler. Up to the 1960s the textbooks clearly reflect this. There are, of course, exceptions. These reach as far back as the late 1700s, when Gilbert White first looked beyond the “cabinets of curiosities” of his time to ask questions such as why the swift population of Selborne was so very steady at eight breeding pairs per year. The work of Lotka and Volterra in the 1920s—itself partly anticipated by earlier work in the 1880s— raises significant theoretical issues about competitive and predator-prey relations. This being acknowledged, the fact remains that up into the 1960s the leading ecology texts, such as Andrewartha and Birch's The Distribution and Abundance of Animals, were at best like earlier descriptive chemistry texts in which the empirically derived Periodic Table gave coherence, but before the underlying quantum mechanical basis of atomic structure had illuminated the Periodic Table itself.

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