Temperate assumptions: How where we work influences how we think

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Scientists have been observing the natural world for centuries and have long been intrigued by the high biodiversity and complexity of the tropics. They also usually had North American or European—in other words, outsider—perspectives and frequently concluded that the tropics were qualitatively different from the temperate regions in their ecology, evolution, and behavior. In particular, the tropics were seen as having a more benign abiotic environment, which in turn fostered more complex biotic relationships, with increased competition and other interactions. This may or may not be the case. Regardless, these ideas establish the temperate regions of the world as a kind of model system, a norm to which the tropics are compared and seen as different or unusual. The tropics are warmer or more diverse, rather than the temperate zone being cooler or less diverse. Such an attitude makes it difficult both to appreciate the scope of variation in nature and to develop accurate and general models for ecological and evolutionary processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)S1-S7
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue numberS1
StatePublished - Sep 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
I am grateful to the many tropical biologists who have educated me over the years, including my PhD adviser, W. D. Hamilton, who was always ready to see new model systems. Thanks also to the American Society of Naturalists for supporting the symposium and to the organizers of Evolution 2015 for their help. I appreciate the thoughtful contributions and discussion from the symposium participants. My work is supported by the US National Science Foundation and the University of Minnesota.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 by The University of Chicago.


  • Model system
  • Temperate bias
  • Tropical biology


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