Interview with James Brown, September 23, 2014

Collection: Ecological Society of America Oral History Collection

Dublin Core


James Brown was the president of the Ecological Society of America from 1996-1997 and won the 2002 ESA Robert H. MacArthur Award. In this interview he recalls coining the term “macroecology,” discusses his ESA presidency, and shares his concerns about the future of ecology.

Interview notes

James' interest in natural history was motivated by his mother at their up-state New York rural home near Ithaca; close association with Cornell Ornithological Lab. He went hunting and trapping and his father was a philosophy professor at Cornell. At 11 years of age, James was working with a Cornell grad student in fields near his home. He took a high school science course at Cornell one summer.

James attended Cornell and majored in biology in the “arts” college. He became an undergrad teaching assistant, took a summer course at MBL, and graduated in 1963. He got his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. He was influenced by Undergraduate Biology Club programs and field trips, and faculty members Hamilton and Eisner.

James was always interested in mammals and birds, and was attracted to the Southwest. He studied climate adaptation in Neotoma, in the western U.S., along with physiological ecology. He was guided by Bill Dawson, and other graduate students who were very important, maybe more so than faculty at the time. He did a post-doc with Bartholomew at UCLA. Most Ph.D.’s in those days found jobs in academia in a part of the country and the kind of school they wanted. He thinks more opportunities developed in the aftermath of Sputnik.

In the desert you can see everything, unlike in the Northeast. He picked study sites and organisms most appropriate for answering the questions that interested him.

Michigan, Berkeley, Georgia, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, and others that he lists were the places to go for grad school when he was looking for a place for graduate studies in vertebrate/mammalian ecology.

He was a “60s liberal” in those years, but mostly from the sidelines. He was having too much fun doing science to be an activist. While a faculty member at UCLA, he became involved with anti-Vietnam and Earth Day.

Funding was relatively easy in those days, and faculty positions were more abundant compared to now. He feels sorry for his students now who are looking for positions.

Development of Ecology

There were two general areas at the beginning: Ecosystem ecology with the Odums and evolutionary ecology with Robert Macarthur. Ecology was “split,” but also population and community ecology. There was very little integration of the two, and often there was a lack of appreciation for what the other was trying to do.

He discusses making contact with Robert Macarthur. Martin Cody put him in contact with Macarthur. Cody and Jim were contemporaries and close friends. Macarthur influenced him to do more community ecology on desert rodents and less physiological ecology. Ecology suffered from too much of the “either /or” rather than an integrative approach. He appreciated the Odums approach. In the 1980s, ecology seemed to have “lost its rudder.” Jim also was influenced by Robert Whittaker, Joe Connell, and Bob Paine. Paine promoted experimental ecology. He worked on rodents, ants, seeds.

Also, Jim was interested in biogeography, island biogeography, and mountain tops in the Southwest, but he became more experimental in his approach. He developed his interest in macroecology, a way to study major patterns and processes affecting biodiversity on a broad geographic scale. It changed his perspective. That approach became “wildly successful.” It was a way of addressing some practical questions, like climate change, ocean fisheries, habitat fragmentation, etc. See his Foundations of Macroecology book; Brown et al. coined the term, but papers had been done previously. It provided a statistical framework that enabled a rigorous form of analysis. He also talks about his work with Dave Tilman.

James thinks there is too much focus on small plots and short-term experiments; macroecological approach uses long-term data sets over larger areas.

What have been major challenges in his career?

There were challenges in keeping some projects funded; juggling personal and professional life; he was married to a biologist for nearly 50 years; finding tenure-track positions at the same institution; but overall, relatively minor. He feels blessed.

What are major controversies in ecology that he’s been involved with?

The role of competition on communities was head-to-head with Dan Simberloff, the “Tallahasee mafia”, which tended to think randomness (colonization and extinction) was more influential than competition. Jim thinks he won the bet they made; Dan acknowledged he lost.

Some of Macarthur’s colleagues wrote critical letters to the editor about his ideas on macroecology, metabolic ecology, so Jim anticipated backlash from more conservative colleagues.

He names some of his students who have been involved with his development of macroecology, but many have suffered more criticism than he has.

Robert Macarthur and Robert Whittaker were his role models.

What effect has his work had on the field at large?

He says he is "not the best person to ask that."

Macroecology and metabolic ecology is still “wait and see,” but his approach is to push ahead and see what develops.

He gives some examples of research that he abandoned because it didn’t seem to be leading anywhere. For example, some of his scaling research. 

He introduced the concepts of “rescue effect” and “macroecology,” and now “metabolic ecology,” perhaps. He gives the names of important collaborators. The contributions of grad students and post-docs to his program and science in general have been monumental.

He’s concerned about where contemporary ecology is going.

“You don’t get where I’ve got without having an ego.” That’s the nature of the game. The ultimate judgement will be made by future generations of ecologists; current generation is invested in their ideas so they are not likely to be the best judges either.

He says he has a laid back attitude about it all.

What is he most proud of?

Doing pioneering research and working with students and post-docs. In retirement, he doesn’t miss going into the classroom, but he had good teaching evaluations. He does miss interactions with grad students and post-docs, which sustained him. Five of his Ph.D. students work with The Nature Conservancy, and he feels good about that. He doesn’t feel that all graduates should end up in academia. It’s important to work toward “promoting diversity.” He thinks he’s trained more female ecologists than anyone else.

Would he do anything differently if he could repeat his career?

He doesn’t look back; his career has developed in a way that he has no complaints. He has come to think that he could have been a kinder, gentler colleague while maintaining rigorous research. There’s no need to be personal in criticizing the science of others, he said. He’s still learning to write and communicate effectively. And he sees his career as one of continuing growth and amazing freedom.

What are your plans for future studies?

He plans to have more time to do think he enjoys, and his helping 2 Ph.D. students and one post-doc. He is also on the editorial board of PNAS with 5-10 manuscripts each week. He is doing collaborative work on metabolic ecology, with some international collaborations. And he is on the UNM Human Macroecology Working Group as he has become increasingly concerned about the fate of humankind. Richard Sibley is encouraging him to work on a new book with him. And he is moving to California. 

What are pluses and minuses of informatics movement?

Very positive in general, but he’s concerned about a decline in natural history. The authors of PNAS submissions often make fundamental mistakes because they don’t understand organisms and ecosystems. 

He is also concerned about the “huge bandwagon on climate change.” Doing that has eclipsed a number of other severe problems such as human disease, depletion of resources, and overpopulation.

Ecology still lacks a well-established theoretical framework for evaluating, and discusses where we are at with human ecology. ESA has been talking about a sustainable biosphere, but ESA has never really shown much of any leadership in “human ecology,” he says. Ecologists should have as big a place at the table as the economists, and we haven’t pushed for that, so we don’t. He’s a fan of Paul Ehrlich, but only recently has he realized that he too should have been doing more. Frontiers is rejecting “politically incorrect” papers on population growth, so they are being published elsewhere.

What is the future of ecology?

It needs a unifying theory; evolutionary ecology has its theory. Ecology has never had that. Why is there so little recognition by social scientists that there might be limitations to human societies as well? Maybe if we had a better ecological theory, it would be easier.

Training graduate students

There’s no recipe for good science. Help them individually do what they do well; there is no one size fits all. Learn nuts and bolts that are required, the basics. He says he doesn't like the word "training" but rather he helps each one develop their own scientific personality. 

He thinks of himself as the “most mathematically challenged theoretical ecologist in the world.” And adds, “If I am a theoretical ecologist.”

Anything else?

He expresses his distress about the status of science as a whole and that it's possible for someone with no background in the subject to oppose the conclusions of the IPCC.

Development of ESA as a professional organization

When he became president, ESA had just decided that it needed a Washington Office to be visible and influential.The move to the office was conducted just before Jim was elected. Within weeks of his term, there was “total disaster” within the Washington Office; he had a lot of help in deciding that a new executive director had to be hired. That was not what he was anticipating, i.e., bringing ecology to the attention of VIPs in Washington. It was not a happy experience and there was little opportunity for intellectual leadership. He was president when Katherine McCarter was hired, who changed how ESA did business. He gives lot of credit for the transition to Jim MacMahon.

The single most important committee he served on was the one he chaired that led to the founding of NCEAS. Maybe this was the most important single thing that happened during his career. It hasn’t been continued by NSF, which is a shame. It was a fantastic engine that NSF let die.

Anything more about ESA or other topics?

He says he is very concerned about the direction that The Nature Conservancy has taken during the last few years under Tercek’s leadership. Jim was on the New Mexico Board of Trustees of TNC. He recalls that TNC developed from an ESA committee.

What in his files should be saved? Data in his filing cabinets? How to archive it? We’re so overwhelmed with data on some important issues, but how and where to archive it.

He is worried that his grandkids will be mostly concentrated on staying alive, and won’t have the opportunity to enjoy the life he had, or that anyone will care about what he has done. That's what worries him.






Oral History Item Type Metadata


125 minutes


James Brown and Eva Dettweiler-Robinson, “Interview with James Brown, September 23, 2014,” UGA Special Collections Libraries Oral Histories, accessed June 8, 2023,