"Mathematical modeling is increasingly vital in the biological sciences, and the key challenge is to uncover the simplicity underlying the seemingly bewildering complexity," Banavar says. In recent years, theorists have struggled to reconcile neutral theory with more mainstream ecological models, such as the famous niche theory, according to which species survive by exploiting ecological "niches" to which they are uniquely and better adapted than other species. For example, a rare plant species might survive in a dense rainforest habitat by exploiting a peculiar soil composition for which it is genetically adapted. Niche theory seemed so commonsensical that many ecological theorists reacted fiercely when Hubbell published his hypothesis, because it implied that individual members of plant or animal species comprising a fixed total population could be modeled as if they were equivalent entities in a random evolutionary lottery influenced only by rates of birth, death, and immigration.
In Hubbell's 2001 book, The Unified Neutral Theory of Biodiversity and Biogeography, he pointed to a surprising feature of some measurements of relative species abundance distributions (RSAs). The measurements are indistinguishable from fictional distribution curves generated by models based on random processes; that is, processes in which the fates of hypothetical species owe purely to chance events in birth, death, and immigration rather than to their adaptive prowess. Of cours
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