The neutral model posits that random variation in extinction and speciation events, coupled with limited dispersal, can account for many community properties, including the relative abundance distribution. There are important analogies between this model in ecology and a three-tiered hierarchy of models in evolution (Hardy Weinburg, drift, drift and selection). Because it invokes random processes and is used in statistical tests of empirical data, the neutral model can be interpreted as a specialized form of a null model. However, the application and interpretation of neutral models differs from that of standard null models in three important ways: 1) whereas most null models incorporate species-level constraints that are often associated with niche differences, the neutral model assumes that all species are functionally equivalent. 2) Null models are usually fit with constraints that are measured directly from the data set itself. In contrast, the neutral model requires parameters for speciation, extinction, and migration rates that are almost never measured directly, so their values must be guessed at or fitted. 3) Most important, null models are viewed as simple statistical descriptors: unspecified “random” forces generate variation in a simple model that excludes particular biological mechanisms (usually species interactions). Although the neutral model was originally framed as a null model, recent proponents of the neutral model have begun to treat it as a literal process-based description of community assembly.
These differences lie at the heart of much of the recent controversy over the neutral model. If the neutral model is truly a process-based model, then its assumptions should be directly tested, and its predictions should be compared to those of an appropriate null model. Such tests are rarely informative, and most empirical data sets can be fit more parsimoniously to a simple log-normal distribution. Because unknown parameters in the neutral model must usually be guessed at or fit in ad-hoc ways, classical frequentist tests are compromised, and may be biased towards finding a good fit with the model. There has been little analysis of the potential for type I and type II errors in statistical tests of the neutral model.
The neutral model has recently been proposed as a specific form of more general null models in biogeography (the mid-domain effect) and community ecology (species co-occurrence). In both cases, the neutral model is qualitatively, but not quantitatively, similar to the predictions of classic null models. However, because the important parameters in the neutral model can rarely be measured directly, it may be of limited value as a null hypothesis for empirical tests.
Future progress may come from moving beyond dichotomous tests of neutral versus null models. Instead, the neutral model might be viewed as a mechanism that contributes to pattern along with other processes. Alternatively, the fit of data to the neutral model can be compared to the fit to other process-based models that are not based on neutrality assumptions. Finally, the neutral model can also be tested directly if its parameters can be estimated independently of the test data. However, these approaches may require more data than are often available. For these reasons, simple null model tests will continue to be important in the evaluation of the neutral model.