Most scientists will tell you that their study system is the best study system. If they use a model system, their system is the best because it’s easy to bring to the lab, it’s appropriate for a broad array of questions, and it already has decades of research built around it. If they use a non-model system, it’s perfect because it adds to our understanding of global diversity/processes, it represents an open niche for one to make their name, and it may be more likely to reveal novel discoveries. But the degree to which a study system is defended and justified varies greatly across systems, and it seems as though system pride often increases as a function of distance from humans.
The invertebrate biologists go bonkers for their barnacles.
The plant ecologists take pride in their perennials.
And the soil biologists smile at the stratification of the soil pit they’ll push you into if you dis their soil.
And there is an awful lot of system pride among the parasitologists, who are constantly defending their work because of the disgust that’s so attached to the term “parasite”. We study the “abusers of life”- the reviled alien creatures that live in guts, tissue, and feces. A cheetah may kill an antelope instantly (forever ridding its prey of true love, happiness, and reproductive success) while the lowliest tapeworm may only take a few bites. But – let’s face it – to most people that cheetah is way sexier.
Due in part to their system pride, parasitologists have recently begun to ask an important question: what role do parasites play in ecosystem function, and how are parasites important components of biodiversity? And recently the BBC did a piece on just this question, asking:
You should definitely read the article for yourself if you get the chance. The author, Lucy Jones, interviewed a number of eminent parasite ecologists, including Andres Gomez, Kevin Lafferty (who we met in Bocas), Jaap de Roode, Levi Morran, and Luis Zaman. And the piece quickly became an interesting thought experiment, covering everything from human health, to population regulation, to niche partitioning. One scientist even posited that, in the absence of host-parasite red queen dynamics, sex would disappear!!!
The moral of the BBC story was that, without the tremendous diversity of parasitic interactions, our world would change drastically and probably for the worst. And I certainly believe that to be true. But is that really unique to the disappearance of parasites? It seems the complete disappearance of any group of organisms would cause fundamental changes in the way our ecosystems work. Try to imagine a world without vertebrates, a world without invertebrates, a world without plants, or… a world without soil.
System pride may sometimes seem silly or even annoying, but it is integral to the progress of biology. It is developed through a deep and intimate knowledge of a system- and without it, we would not have the understanding of each system’s importance to our world. We need the bird lovers, the fossil hunters, and the fungiphiles. We need people who are passionate about different units of biodiversity, as well as the connections that link them.