Notes from Asilomar: 150 years of the American Naturalist

View from Asilomar State Beach (jby)

My 2018 academic year started with a drive north. Asilomar Conference Grounds, on the Monterey Peninsula, is a half-day trip north of Los Angeles, so when the American Society of Naturalists announced it as the site for the society’s meeting celebrating the 150th anniversary of the American Naturalist, its scientific journal, I registered almost immediately. Asilomar’s rustic-luxury architecture, set amidst Monterey pines on the edge of the ocean, was an appropriate venue for a conference celebrating the impact of the oldest continuously publishing scientific journal in North America.

I’m cribbing that factoid from the introductory presentation by Dan Bolnick, the incoming editor-in-chief of Am Nat, who opened the meeting with a walk through the journal’s history. Founded in 1867 by a quartet of disgruntled Harvard graduate students, Am Nat grew into the turn-of-the-twentieth-century version of Science under editor/owner Edward Drinker “yes that” Cope. Worried that Am Nat had become a dumping ground for papers rejected by more specialized journals, a later editor re-focused on biology, and Am Nat became a major venue for research underlying the Modern Synthesis of Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolutionary theory, then for the growth of theoretical ecology — and as the millennium turned it emerged as a nexus for ecology, evolution, and behavioral research. Bolnick nicely balanced stories about individual papers and contributors to the journal with a quantitative look at how its content has changed over time.

(Twitter: @DanielBolnick)

(I hope he’ll be posting the full slide show somewhere. Update: He has!)

The conference itself followed what I gather is the usual structure for ASN’s biennial stand-alone meetings: multiple concurrent, topic-specific sessions of twenty-minute talks each morning, and a single symposium of half-hour talks in the afternoon. The first day’s symposium, organized by Andrew Hendry and Andy Gonzalez was devoted to the topic of maladaptation; the other two were each given over to talks reflecting on Am Nat‘s century and a half of scientific history.

Those presentations echoed the Countdown to 150 papers published in Am Nat over the course of 2017, with each speaker tracing the influence of one or more articles from the journal’s archive, usually relating it to their own current research. The result was more a survey course of evolutionary ecology than a typical conference symposium — each talk was a briefing on a whole field of inquiry within Am Nat‘s broad purview. Some of my favorites included

The concurrent sessions, and a Monday morning lightning-talk session, held more of the fruits of Am Nat‘s long history. I was lucky to moderate a terrific session on mutualisms, which mixed observational, experimental, and theory work; and interesting work on phenology and life history evolution — including a neat recent project in extracting phenology data from herbarium records — popped up in sessions on environmental change and methods development.

In keeping with one of the historical trends in Am Nat‘s coverage, the meeting included fewer genetic or genomic datasets than any conference I’ve attended — and several of the ones presented had been published in venues other than Am Nat, like Rachel Bay’s project linking genomic variation to population declines in yellow warblers, which was published last week … in that jumped-up journal-come lately Science. The American Naturalist is quite happy to report population genetic data, but today it’s not at all the first place you’d go with a genetic dataset that is exciting as a genetic dataset.

Genetic marker data may not often be the centerpiece of an Am Nat paper, but it often underpins behavioral, ecological, or comparative analysis: providing paternity identifications that link bluebird hybridization to post-fire succession, or phylogenetic estimates that illuminate the distribution of tropical frog species, for instance. I’d argue this makes Am Nat a preview of the future — when the novelty value of genomic data wears off, and high-throughput sequencing takes its place as another tool of evolutionary ecology. That thought, and the sheer breadth of interesting biology presented at Asilomar, leave me confident that whatever else happens in the next fifty years, we’ll be reconvening to cheer the American Naturalist‘s second century in 2067.

About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy B. Yoder is an Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Northridge, studying the evolution and coevolution of interacting species, especially mutualists. He is a collaborator with the Joshua Tree Genome Project and the Queer in STEM study of LGBTQ experiences in scientific careers. He has written for the website of Scientific American, the LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Awl, and Slate.
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