Thursday, November 2, 2017


Posting # 14
Donald A. Windsor

When a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

When a paradigm shifts and no one in the scientific community notices, does it make any difference?

The tree question was asked by philosopher George Berkley in 1710. I ask my my paradigm question now. The vital role of paradigm shifts in science was explained by Thomas S. Kuhn in 1962.

My paradigm about parasites was published in 1998. I was advocating a paradigm shift. The newly formed concept in my paradigm turns ecology upside down and inside out.

Here is a brief backstory. My dissertation research involved parasites, but upon leaving school in 1966 my employment dealt with other subjects. When I retired in 1994, I was curious about what when on in parasitology during the previous 28 years. So I started reading the parasitology literature where I left off. When I finished in 1997 I experienced a shocking realization. Parasite species seem to be more numerous than their host species. Moreover, the important roles that parasites play in ecosystems seemed to be woefully understated and even vastly unrecognized.

Twenty years will soon have elapsed and, while my article has been cited 197 times, ecologistsists have not yet recognized this new paradigm as a shift. Maybe they never will. Regardless of what happens, I am getting too old to ever find out. Here is a brief synopsis.

The ruling paradigm in ecology holds that our biosphere is composed of free-living (non-parasitic) organisms, with parasites merely being pesky nuisances.

My paradigm contends that parasites are ubiquitous, insidious managers of our biosphere. They do not merely freeload off their hosts – parasites regulate their hosts. When competition and predation do not reign in host populations, parasites take over and prevent monocultures. The result is biodiversity. A corollary is even more astounding; some parasites enable their hosts to avoid extinction.

The validity of my paradigm can be tested, just as any other hypothesis can. If another planet, or even an asteroid, has life, but does not have parasites, then it will have few species and have large monocultures. My paradigm contends that parasitism is a property of life on Earth. Discovery of extraterrestrial life will reveal whether parasitism is a universal property of life.

I hope my paradigm becomes the current paradigm before we contaminate other worlds with our organisms and jeopardize this test.

References cited:

Berkley, George. A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. 1710.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. 3rd Edition. 1996. 212 pages.

Windsor, Donald A. Most of the species on Earth are parasites.
International Journal for Parasitology 1998 December; 28(12): 1939-1941.


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