Model Systems in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior: A Call for Diversity in Our Model Systems and Discipline

WashU affiliated authors: Swanne P. Gordon (Dept. of Biology)

Abstract: Ecologists and evolutionary biologists are fascinated by life’s variation but also seek to understand phenomena and mechanisms that apply broadly across taxa. Model systems can help us extract generalities from amid all the wondrous diversity, but only if we choose and develop them carefully, use them wisely, and have a range of model systems from which to choose. In this introduction to the Special Feature on Model Systems in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior (EEB), we begin by grappling with the question, What is a model system? We then explore where our model systems come from, in terms of the skills and other attributes required to develop them and the historical biases that influence traditional model systems in EEB. We emphasize the importance of communities of scientists in the success of model systems—narrow scientific communities can restrict the model organisms themselves. We also consider how our discipline was built around one type of “model scientist”—a history still reflected in the field. This lack of diversity in EEB is unjust and also narrows the field’s perspective, including by restricting the questions asked and talents used to answer them. Increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion will require acting at many levels, including structural changes. Diversity in EEB, in both model systems and the scientists who use them, strengthens our discipline.