It started, as many writing tales do, with John McPhee. In late 2011, I was reading a piece by the legendary writer, in which he talked about penning a series of profiles that were linked by a central character. I started thinking about doing something similar with a scientific bent—a story that would start with a single important person and trace the line of their academic descendants. Science, after all, is full of legacies. People learn their trade in the labs of senior scientists and go on to train students of their own. I wanted to explore how attitudes, skills and ideas are passed down these familial lines.
Finding the right person was hard. I needed someone who had made important contributions and produced a rich tree of students, who had never (or rarely) been intensively profiled, and who was still alive. That’s not a huge list. But thanks to a timely chat with Nancy Baron, I found my subject: an ecologist called Bob Paine.
Paine’s a 6-foot-6-inches-tall bear of a man, forthright in his views, deeply in love with nature, and beloved by many. It was he who came up with the concept of a keystone species – one that is so disproportionately influential in its environment that removing it can remodel the entire community of life around it. The concept began with classic experiments when Paine threw starfish off an American coastline and saw the same beach overrun by mussels. Keystones are now enshrined in ecological textbooks and greatly affects how we see, and choose to care for, the world around us.
But Paine is a keystone himself. He’s a man who has had a tremendous impact on science, not just through ideas, but through the people he mentored, who have become eminent scientists in their own right. Unlike some senior scientists, Paine treated his trainees as equals, and emphasised independence, freedom and creativity.
My story—simply called “Dynasty” and out today in Nature—tells the tale of Paine’s ideas and the reasons behind the success. I look at his descendants and how they expanded on his ideas and philosophies, while also rebelling against them.
I’ve been working on this for the better part of a year, and I’m very proud of it. I hope you enjoy it. Here’s a teaser:
Bob Paine is nearly 2 metres tall and has a powerful grip. The ochre sea star, however, has five sucker-lined arms and can span half a metre. So when Paine tried to prise the creatures off the rocks along the Pacific coast, he found that his brute strength simply wasn’t enough. In the end, he resorted to a crowbar. Then, once he had levered the animals up, he hurled them out to sea as hard as he could. “You get pretty good at throwing starfish into deeper water,” he says.
It was a ritual that began in 1963, on an 8-metre stretch of shore in Makah Bay, Washington. The bay’s rocky intertidal zone normally hosts a thriving community of mussels, barnacles, limpets, anemones and algae. But it changed completely after Paine banished the starfish. The barnacles that the sea star (Pisaster ochraeus) usually ate advanced through the predator-free zone, and were later replaced by mussels. These invaders crowded out the algae and limpets, which fled for less competitive pastures.
Within a year, the total number of species had halved: a diverse tidal wonderland became a black monoculture of mussels. By re-engineering the coastline in this way, Paine dealt a serious blow to the dominant view in ecology of the time: that ecosystems are stable dramas if they have a diverse cast of species. Instead, he showed that individual species such as Pisaster are prima donnas, whose absence can warp the entire production into something blander and unrecognizable. He described these crucial creatures, whose influence far exceeds their abundance, as keystone species, after the central stone that prevents an arch from crumbling. Their loss can initiate what Paine would later call trophic cascades — the rise and fall of connected species throughout the food web. The terms stuck, and ‘keystone’ would go on to be applied to species from sea otters to wolves, grey whales and spotted bass.
Today, ecology students take these concepts for granted — but they shook the field when Paine first articulated them in the 1960s. “He’s been one of the most influential ecologists in the last half century,” says Simon Levin, a mathematical ecologist at Princeton University in New Jersey, and one of Paine’s closest friends. The revelation that not all species are equal was as disruptive to ecology as the loss of Pisaster was to Makah Bay. So was Paine’s insistence on tinkering with nature — what some have called kick-it-and-see ecology — at a time when most ecologists simply observed it.
But Paine — an organism whose disproportionate influence equals that of any starfish or sea otter — has also changed the ecosystem of scientists. In his five-decade career, he has trained a thriving dynasty of around 40 students and postdocs, many of whom are now leading ecologists themselves and who consider their time with Paine formative.
Science hosts many such dynasties: successions of academic leaders related not by blood, but by mentorship. Each generation inherits attitudes, philosophies and technical skills from the one before. Some, like Paine’s, are particularly fertile, sprouting lush branches on the academic tree and driving a field in a new direction. But Paine’s dynasty is remarkable not just for its scientific influence, but for its dedicated, tight-knit nature. Thanks to Paine’s original — and widely applicable — ideas, his emphasis on independent thought by his protégés and his fun, irreverent nature, almost every member has stayed in science, and specifically in ecology or marine biology.
“It’s a surprising list of superstars — great mentors of graduate students, who have published interesting work,” says Paine, who retired in 1998 but is still active in the field. These days, Paine can be spotted at ecological meetings by the swarm of academic descendants milling around him. Perhaps in this rich family, there are lessons about why some scientific dynasties flourish and grow, whereas others never bud.