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Natural Inheritance

Robert Paine is a super-famous ecologist, the first person to really nail down the process known as a “trophic cascade,” by which top predators have a forcing effect that deeply impacts the entire food web. Many years ago Paine did an experiment off the North Pacific coast, removing sea stars (formerly known as starfish, but they are not fish) from control plots. Despite their frequent appearance on childrens’ wallpaper, sea stars are gangster predators. A few weeks ago I came across one the length of my forearm at Pillar Point – with an 8-inch crab sticking out of its belly. The sea star everts its stomach directly over its prey and begins digesting – wow – so I was actually witnessing the sea star consuming the crab. What a way to go. Sea stars also eat mussels, and when Paine removed them from his control plots the mussels there flourished – and pretty soon the mussels ate up all the kelp in the area. Kelp is like the forest of the water, providing food and habitat for myriads, and when the kelp was gone, so too went many of the aquatic denizens who depend on it. Without the slurping stomach keeping things in check, the tide pools became “depauperate.” This is not good. Paine’s chain of causality starting with the top predator has been identified in virtually every sort of ecosystem we’ve got, and the trophic cascade is one of the most important concepts in ecology today.

In a wonderful piece in Nature last week, “Bob Paine fathered an idea – and an academic family – that changed ecology,” Ed Yong describes a parallel chain of causality in which Paine plays a major role, and that is in mentoring the scientific generations coming after him. Since I hang around scientists a lot and interview a lot of them, I know first-hand that Paine’s willingness to support graduate students and to encourage their research is pretty rare. Scientists are nice people individually, but they can be vicious to one another. My good friend Roy Eisenhardt, an attorney who was the Executive Director of the Calfornia Academy of Sciences back in the day (and he was also president of the Oakland A’s!) remarked to me once that in any other field, the kind of dissing scientists do to one another would wind them up in court. Why are they so mean? I asked Roy. Because they have to be “right,” said Roy. And that means everybody else has to be “wrong.” In addition to making for very uncomfortable working conditions, this impulse to be king of the castle and keep the peons at bay may help the career of the individual scientist, but it does not help scientific knowledge in general.

I have my own two degrees of separation from Paine by way of Jim Estes, who is also famous, and also extremely generous with himself in the service of knowledge transfer. Estes established that the trophic cascade goes on in the deep waters as well as in the shallows, and he was instigated in his research by Bob Paine himself. Jim Estes was not only consistently amenable to being interviewed by me for The Spine of the Continent, he likewise gave time and guidance to Cristina Eisenberg as she was writing her book about trophic cascades, The Wolf’s Tooth, and also to William Stolzenburg, whose book on the same subject is Where the Wild Things Were. Since Eisenberg, Stoltzenberg and myself are disseminating science to the wider public, perhaps and hopefully inspiring youngsters to take to the cause of nature, Estes deserves his own major branch on the tree of Paine. The world of books can of course be just as rife with rivalry and small-mindedness as that of science, and it is just as counter-productive in this ecosystem.

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