. . . in that empire, the art of cartography attained such perfection that the map of a single province occupied the entirety of a city, and the map of the empire, the entirety of a province. In time, those unconscionable maps no longer satisfied, and the cartographers guilds struck a map of the empire whose size was that of the empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following generations, who were not so fond of the study of cartography as their forebears had been, saw that that vast map was useless, and not without some pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the inclemencies of sun and winters. In the deserts of the west, still today, there are tattered ruins of that map, inhabited by animals and beggars; in all the land there is no other relic of the disciplines of geography.
(On Exactitude in Science from Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, Translated by Andrew Hurley).
Science aims at providing understanding of the natural world. This is achieved by reducing its complexity through the formulation of theories and models that, while capturing the relevant details, provide and abstracted description that can yield predictions on yet unobservable parts of it. Progress in science arises from the essential tension between induction and deduction, empiricism and theory. Data gathered via observation and experimentation provides essential clues about the structure and function of the natural world. Theory organizes this information into a cohesive conceptual framework that explains existing data and yields new predictions that can be tested by gathering and analyzing additional data. The spectacular advances in science are largely due to the iterative process of induction and deduction, prediction and testing. It is our contention that progress in ecology will be significantly enhanced by recognizing the positive role of this dialectic tension in discovery.
During the first half of the last century, biology was revolutionized by the synthesis of Darwinian evolution and population genetics. In many respects this synthesis was achieved by new empirical data but foremost it was a theoretical revolution made possible by the development of rigorous mathematical models that laid the foundations of the field. This entailed the collaboration of the best minds of the time, the development of new techniques such as diffusion approximations developed independently by Fisher, Sewall Wright and Kolmogorov and the ensued expansion carried out by Kimura among others. A similar attempt took place in ecology during the 60s in the so called Marlboro circle lead by Robert McArthur and having as participants E.O Wilson, Egbert Leigh, Richard Levins, Richard Lewontin and Leigh van Valen. The aim of their work was to generate a synthesis between population genetics, ecology and biogeography by developing mathematical theories. Although their attempt was largely unsuccessful it provided some of the foundations for modern biogeography and ecology. More than 50 years have passed since, and we think the time is ripe for a renewed synthesis and integration of ecological theories.