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Durham University

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Publication details for Professor John Wainwright

Perry, G.L.W., Wainwright, J., Etherington, T.R. & Wilmshurst, J.W. (2016). Experimental simulation: using generative modeling and palaeoecological data to understand human-environment interactions. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 4: 109.

Author(s) from Durham


The amount of palaeoecological information available continues to grow rapidly, supporting improved descriptions of the dynamics of past ecosystems and enabling them to be seen from new perspectives. At the same time, there has been concern over whether palaeoecological enquiry needs to move beyond descriptive inference to a more hypothesis-focussed, or experimental approach. However, the extent to which conventional hypothesis-driven scientific frameworks can be applied to historical contexts (i.e., the past) is the subject of ongoing debate. In other disciplines concerned with human-environment interactions, including physical geography and archaeology, there has been growing use of generative simulation models, typified by agent-based approaches. Generative modeling encourages counter-factual questioning (“what if…?,”) a mode of argument that is particularly important in systems and time-periods, such as the Holocene, and now the Anthropocene, where the effects of humans and other biophysical processes are deeply intertwined. However, palaeoecologically focused simulation of the dynamics of the ecosystems of the past either seems to be conducted to assess the applicability of some model to the future or treats humans simplistically as external forcing factors. In this review we consider how generative simulation-modeling approaches could contribute to our understanding of past human-environment interactions. We consider two key issues: the need for null models for understanding past dynamics and the need to be able learn more from pattern-based analysis. In this light, we argue that there is considerable scope for palaeoecology to benefit from developments in generative models and their evaluation. We discuss the view that simulation is a form of experiment and by using case studies, consider how the many patterns available to palaeoecologists can support model evaluation in a way that moves beyond simplistic pattern-matching and how such models might also inform us about the data themselves and the processes generating them. Our emphasis is on how generative simulation might complement traditional palaeoecological methods and proxies rather than on a detailed overview of the modeling methods themselves.