Discussing Dayton: thoughts on a scientific paper

The paper I have chosen discusses benchmarks – references to natural undisturbed states. Although cited in 437 papers since published in 1997, the benchmark concept is originally by another marine biologist fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly, but was redefined and applied by Dayton.

The author argues that meaningful benchmarks are non-existent and that we cant measure change from a natural state, because we lack in understanding what natural is or was in first place.
I like this paper for two reasons: Firstly, it describes to fundamental issues understanding what drives changes and variation in communities, here on the example of Californian kelp forests. The piece teases apart physical (for example temperature, extreme weather events) and biological (predation, competition) processes, as well as anthropogenic impacts which affect ecological communities.
Secondly, the paper also but also has a sobering example for the knock on effects of exploitation, and the role of biodiversity mitigating the impacts, ideas which I am going to explore in more detail here. Sea urchins, which graze on kelp, can eliminate kelp forests, resulting in a habitat shift to deforested barren habitats. This is an alternative state that is stable and can persist for a very long time (a term coined, alternative stable state)

This doesn’t occur naturally because sea urchin numbers are kept low by their predators, notably sea otters, spiny lobsters and sheephead fish. These are referred to as keystone species – for their relatively large impact on other member of the community. Because otters are absent in many kelp forest habitats today and other species overfished, urchin numbers are uncontrolled. As numbers of urchins increase, so does their impact on kelp forests, often leaving desolate, barren areas behind.
The interesting point is that kelps still functioned in Southern California; even decades after sea otters became locally extinct due to the fur trade. This is in contrast to habitats in Alaska, where once sea otter populations became extinct, whole kelp forests were lost. In contrast to Alaska, California had much greater biodiversity with other species overtaking the role of the sea otters in controlling sea urchin populations. In the 1950’ other species, including spiny lobsters and sheephead fish were also exploited heavily in California, eventually resulting in a loss of kelp beds.
This example is meaningful to me for two reasons. Firstly, ecosystems can persist despite disturbances, because other species can take over the functional roles of extinct species. In this example other species are feeding on sea urchins, filling in the gap left by the local extinction of the otters. It emphasises the importance of species richness in buffering negative impacts on ecosystems.
The second, similarly important point is, that there is a limit to this buffering function. If human impacts continue to stress the system (here by exploiting the predators of sea urchins), eventually the system may switch to an alternative state. I guess the message is that biodiversity can stabilise degrading ecosystems from losing function, but only to some extend. Once a threshold is passed the ecosystems change.

As a biologist my day consists of reading papers about the state of the environment and the future of the planet and our role as humans in it. I find myself absolutely detached from these messages when reading. I know figures; predicted changes in pH and temperature, overexploitation rates of fish stocks, habitat fragmentation, species introductions, but I have lost the emotional relationship to the data.
Maybe that is a good thing, because realising the severity of the situation wouldn’t allow me to spend my time working on learning more about these ecosystems, to contribute to a better understanding, even if only in a small way. But I am not sure if this detachment it is right. It is really not a case that I don’t care, I do. But to emotionally understand I need time and sit down and think about it. Doing this can be overwhelming.
Do my co-workers feel the same way? Clearly to work in conservation they must care about the state of the world as I do, but I do wonder if they feel detached as well.

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3 Responses to Discussing Dayton: thoughts on a scientific paper

  1. Kate says:

    Thanks for this clear synopsis. I wonder what other researchers say or write about the impact this kind of knowledge has on them, emotionally. As an artist, it made me ask: how do artists work with difficult emotional issues? That suddenly became a very big question as artists work on so many themes (war, ecocide, abuse, love …) – perhaps art offers a way in to things.

    Sticking to the theme of the living world – Mark Dion writes very clearly about the process of working alongside wildlife conversation. His starting point is that humans cannot stand outside of nature, and artists’ can work on ideas about nature.

    Dion wrote ‘Some notes Towards a Manifesto for Artists Working With or About the Living World’ – it is included in an interview with Giovanni Aloi in the book Art and Animals, 2012, Tauris. The manifesto is really helpful – the whole book is worth reading. Someone has copied out the manifesto here: https://www.facebook.com/chriscalderwoodart/posts/375345145930401

    Here is another link for how Mark Dion chooses to engage with the realities of conversation (he talks about how he proposes to support reserve wardens who he can see are under pressure: http://www.artistsrespond.org/artists/dion/thoughts/

    When I have glimpsed the kind of knowledge environmental scientists have, I have wondered if it is lonely – generally who wants to know about the scale of human environmental impact (aka ecocide)? Maybe being creative and sociable helps? I think it’s important to work out for ourselves what counts as success (and make that achievable!). Magnus Wessel of BUND (Friends of the Earth) German made good points at a conference about public funding and biodiversity. He reminded us the role biodiversity plays in our lives, and that matters are urgent. He cautioned us to concentrate on what was possible and to expect to deal with conflict (appropriate for the conference location – the Diplomatic Academy). He pointed out the uneasy fit between public policy objectives and sustainability. He drew out the need to make an emotional connection, suggesting the need for strategies for connecting with a wide public and not just specialists (particularly with young people who may go on to sustain projects).

    The link to the full paper is here:

  2. jethrobrice says:

    Thank you for this, Lydia. I enjoyed both the papers themselves, and your summary – in particular it was interesting to read your personal response in the final paragraph. Many artists have been drawn to work with the big and potentially devastating themes of life, as Kate has said. Their approaches vary enormously, but perhaps they share a distinct position from that of the scientific researcher – concerned less with specificity of knowledge than with the task of coming to terms with, understanding, relating to, or visualising that which challenges the limits of our capacity to make sense of the world. Recently, I have wondered whether one thing scientists appreciate in artists as potential collaborators is their relative freedom, as independent operators with some form of social license to challenge, explore, and critique. Scientists offer artists a point of entry, a way of grounding their practice in the ‘real’ world, perhaps. And a reservoir of languages and methodologies to explore, appropriate, question and subvert.

    I think your proposal to establish collaborative partnerships between early career artists and scientists is an excellent one. I am increasingly working at this point of intersection – between academic research and artistic. Alongside this I have begun to develop other socially-engaged practices with different communities, for example asylum seekers and refugees, or young people in my neighbourhood. I am seeking to inhabit the space between areas of expert knowledge – both professional and ‘lived’ expertise. I think the role of the artist here is not exactly to communicate – rather to add another dimension to the conversation. I hope one outcome of that process is indeed to re-inspire and to re-connect in the face of devastating knowledge, as you perhaps suggest – certainly this has been a major reason for me, to work and continue working, with these themes.

    I look forward to continuing the conversation,


  3. llbach says:

    Dear Kate and Jethro,

    thank you for your comments and thoughts. I have not spoken to researchers about the impact their knowledge or work has on them – nor am I aware of researchers discussing this very much.
    I do wonder if this is somewhat frowned upon within academia – expressing concern about the state of the world – in an emotional sort of way. Personally, I don’t think as much as it used to be. After all, many conservationists work on these issues because they do care. However, what I wonder is if scientists are open to expressing science in different ways – for example by using art as a medium of communication. I don’t think that is really the case, but to me it means that we ignore a tool that could really help us to communicate our work to a wider audience. This is what part of the project is about.
    I do think art in a way may be more dimensional – by connecting to topics in an emotional way. Clearly science has to report facts, but I feel like meaning sometimes is lost by leaving out any emotion or opinion. As scientist, we can’t do that. We must report the numbers and facts and the meaning of them in a way that allows others to assess the implications – public, policy makers, government etc. But does this have to be the only way of communicating results? Should we disengage entirely with other ways of communicating these issues (even if it means we start to voice our own concerns and options)? I don’t think so.
    As a scientist I do wish however, that we could find ways to deal with environmental issues on both sides. I think there is a need for us to report exactly what the data tells us, but then there should also be a way of communicating the meaning these results have for us. I guess that is why a lot of researchers also advice on policy – because that is one way to impact and acknowledge results.


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