Mechanisms in macroecology: AWOL or purloined letter? Towards a pragmatic view of mechanism


B. J. McGill, School of Natural Resources, Univ. of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85719, USA. E-mail:


Ecologists often believe the discovery of mechanism to be the central goal of scientific research. While many macroecologists have inherited this view, to date they have been much more efficient at producing patterns than identifying their underlying processes. We discuss several possible attitudes for macroecologists to adopt in this context while also arguing that in fact macroecology already has many mechanisms that are ignored. We briefly describe six of these: central limit theorem, fractals, random sampling and placement, neutral theory (and descendents), concordance of forces, and maximum entropy. We explore why these mechanisms are overlooked and discuss whether they should be. We conclude that macroecology needs to take a more pragmatic, less ideological approach to mechanism. We apply this viewpoint to the recent controversy over maximum entropy and suggest that maximum entropy needs to be viewed more pragmatically and less ideologically.