Human Ecological Sciences

We have already noted a second motivation for an expansive conception of ecological science, namely, the fact that there already exists a variety of ecological sciences that deal with human-environment relations.

There are subdisciplines within traditional ecology, such as human paleoecology and human paleobiology, that focus on human-environment relations in the evolutionary past. These disciplines are components of human origins research, an interdisciplinary field that draws on expertise in anthropology, archeology, and linguistics as well as traditional ecology and biology. Philosophers have taken great interest in human origins research. The field is foundational for human sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, which in turn are foundational for naturalistic theories of cultural evolution, and for a variety of positions in the philosophy of mind, language, and ethics.

There also exist a variety of ecological disciplines that study human-environment relations in the present, such as ecological economics, ecological psychology, ecological anthropology, and ecological sociology. Those who work in these fields usually have disciplinary affiliations in economics, psychology, anthropology, or sociology, rather than biology or ecology, yet it is typical for workers in these nontraditional ecological disciplines to view their field as continuous with a general ecological science of organism-environment relationships.

Note that acknowledging these disciplines as ecological sciences does not imply that they all employ the same scientific methods nor that they are all equally successful as sciences. It implies only that at some level they are part of a common scientific enterprise.

It should be obvious that a philosophy of ecology that includes all these human ecological sciences within its scope will have a correspondingly broader sweep than its more restrictive counterpart, since it self-consciously includes philosophical issues relating to the ecological dimensions of human cognition, human social organization, and human-environment relations more broadly. In this mode, the philosophy of ecology naturally spans both the natural and social sciences, and reaches deeper into the domain of sociopolitical philosophy and ethics than it does in its more restrictive mode.

Consider, for example, philosophical issues in ecological economics. One goal of ecological economics is to devise methods of economic valuation and organization that promote the goals of long-term ecological and economic sustainability. A fundamental challenge of this goal is to provide a meaningful definition of 'sustainable' that applies to ecological and economic systems. Research on this question has shown that the concept of sustainability is inherently value-laden, and that one cannot properly address the issue without considering the ethical and sociopolitical consequences of public policies that would operationalize the concept. Evaluating these consequences is, naturally, a task for ethics and sociopolitical philosophy. But if ecological economics is a branch of ecology, and the foundational issues of ecological economics belong to the philosophy of ecology, then the challenge of evaluating the ethical and sociopolitical dimensions of the concept of sustainability also belongs to the philosophy of ecology. Similar reasoning applies to the foundational problems of all the human ecological sciences noted above.

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