2000 Balzan Prize for Ecological Sciences
Acceptance Speech – Rome, 15.11.2000
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I have the greatest pleasure, and the tremendous honour, of representing here the large community of ecologists as the recipient of the Balzan Prize for Ecological Sciences. With this prestigious prize I feel like the smallest in a set of Russian dolls, surrounded by multiple layers of science and scientists. Today I wish briefly to describe to you some of the bigger dolls in this set. But before doing that, allow me to express my appreciation and praise for the two recent subjects chosen by the International Balzan Foundation in the field of biology to receive this prize, biodiversity in 1998 and ecological sciences today.
Though as an ecologist I can hardly be expected to be impartial in this matter, I think we all agree that the broader aims of the Balzan Foundation, to advance culture and science, and peace among people, are difficult to achieve in the long term unless our human race finds harmony with the other creatures, with which we share not only common ancestry but also this planet.
One of the Russian dolls inside which I reside is a relatively new approach in population ecology, dubbed spatial ecology, which I, along with many others, have pursued over the past 20 years. Spatial ecology is based on the general notion that the spatial locations of individuals in their habitat, and the ensuing spatial structure of populations, can have as profound consequences for population dynamics and for the biology of species in general as the more familiar ecological processes, such as birth and mortality rates, competition and predatory skills. 1998 Balzan Laureate, Sir Robert May’s outstanding contributions towards unravelling universal patterns in biological diversity have been duly recognised. Many of these patterns are greatly influenced by the spatial structure of the environment and of populations. To give an example, the astonishing diversity of insect species, estimated at around 4 million, may have much to do with the small-scale heterogeneous spatial structure of their populations, which is generally expected to facilitate the coexistence of species. With such distinctive creatures as dung beetles and carrion flies as my assistants, I have aspired to develop and test models about the role of spatial structure in the ecology of populations and communities.
In the past 10 years, my research has been largely focused on metapopulation ecology, which represents one particular kind of spatial ecology. In the 1970s, the dynamic theory of island biogeography, established by Robert MacArthur and Edward Wilson, emerged as a bright beacon, guiding the research of hundreds of population and community ecologists world-wide and providing a much-needed conceptual framework for conservation biology. This theory was originally developed to understand patterns of biogeography on islands and archipelagoes, but it was soon applied to island-like situations on land – such as nature reserves in human-modified landscapes. One sign of the enormous speed of contemporary environmental change is that the new (though related) vision, metapopulation ecology, is now replacing the theory of island biogeography in conservation. With this shift in the theories, emphasis has moved to smaller spatial scales, to ordinary fragmented landscapes. Rather than ask questions about particular fragments of landscape, we now ask questions about the properties of entire networks of habitat fragments, and how these properties will influence the ability of species to persist, maintenance of genetic diversity, and the capacity of species to evolve in a changing environment. To avoid any misunderstanding, this change in the theories by no means implies that large reserves are now of reduced value in terms of conservation. Paradoxically, the opposite is the case, but it is natural for ecologists to become concerned with fragmented populations in our increasingly fragmented world.
Population ecologists include hard-core theoreticians as well as devoted empiricists. Having been attracted to both camps I have, as a result, stayed in the middle ground. Ecological phenomena are complex, which both necessitates an effective combination of theory and empirical research, but which also makes it hard to achieve that combination. I have had the very good fortune of working together with researchers having dissimilar talents, and I believe that through these collaborations we have been able to make many of our best contributions.
I am particularly overwhelmed by this recognition, both as a citizen of a small nation and as a scientist in the middle of his career. I understand that with this prize the Balzan Foundation intends to acknowledge the relative strength of ecology in Finland and in many other small countries. Ecology is indeed a field of science where important contributions of all kinds have been made by researchers working outside the big centres of scientific discovery. I accept this prize as a challenge for myself and for ecologists in Finland and other small nations to continue to work with the aim of making truly significant contributions to our science.
The largest doll in my set is the changing position in which we ecologists find ourselves. Natural habitats are being lost and fragmented all over the world at a distressing rate. The human causes of climate change are becoming increasingly evident. As human beings we may experience globalisation and an expanding world – for most other species on earth though, the world is rapidly shrinking. Habitat fragmentation compounded with climate change poses a massive menace to species. Whether we like it or not, the mission of ecology will increasingly be linked with the entirely justified concerns about the state of our environment and about the future of biological diversity.
As scientists, we have to maintain and increase the standards of our work, including the need to assess facts as objectively as possible. At the same time we cannot hide away from the responsibility of speaking out about the likely consequences of the current course of human expansion.
I am deeply grateful for the magnificent recognition that I have received today. By assigning this prize to the ecological sciences the Balzan Foundation has greatly increased the general respect for ecology.