Philosophy of ecology in its more restrictive mode focuses on philosophical issues in population, community, evolutionary, and ecosystem ecology as these fields are ordinarily represented in the standard textbooks and journals. In this mode, the philosophy of ecology is generally understood as a specialization within the philosophy of the natural, biological sciences, alongside
(and overlapping with) other such specializations, such as the philosophy of evolutionary theory. For the most part, this is how the subject matter of the philosophy of ecology is conceived within the tradition of Anglo-American philosophy of science.
Many of the philosophical issues studied within this mode are better understood by situating them within the context of the broader intellectual debate that has served to structure much of the foundational discourse of ecology in the twentieth century. This is the debate between 'holistic' and 'reductionistic' research traditions in ecology.
As the story is usually told, holists believe that ecological systems exhibit order, structure, and regularity at population, community, and ecosystem levels of organization, with higher-level properties and regularities both emerging out of and constraining lower-level properties and regularities. Hence, holists believe the search for lawlike generalizations governing the behavior of populations, communities, and ecosystems is a reasonable and desirable goal of ecological research, and formal investigations of community and ecosystem structure are a worthwhile - indeed, indispensable - activity. The ecosystem concept has its home within this broadly holistic picture of ecological systems.
Reductionists, on the other hand (as the story goes), believe that ecological systems are nothing more than assemblages of individual species populations whose behavior is determined largely by response to local environmental conditions (both biotic and abiotic). There are no such things as 'communities' or 'ecosystems' with emergent causal properties of their own; any properties they have are, at best, epiphenomenal statistical properties of the collection of species populations that compose them. The ecological properties of species populations are best understood in evolutionary terms, as products of natural selection and other evolutionary mechanisms. Consequently, reductionists eschew the search for general laws governing large classes of ecological systems, for it is assumed there are none to discover; rather, their focus is on local, historically contingent, site-specific investigations of population behaviors and environmental conditions.
This dualistic narrative, or some variant of it, has provided the motivating context for most of the writings on foundational issues in ecology, from the early decades of the twentieth century through to the present (e.g., the Clements-Gleason debate over the nature of communities and ecological succession). In this context, to engage in the philosophy of ecology is to take up and defend a position on foundational issues that place one somewhere along the spectrum between extreme holism and extreme reductionism.
One can characterize the core issues in the philosophy of ecology in terms of a set of metaphysical and episte-mological questions on a handful of key topics:
The metaphysical status of ecological entities. What is a population, a community, an ecosystem? Do ecological entities have emergent properties that play a causal role in determining how ecological systems change over time? Is the concept of a community or an ecosystem even operationally meaningful?
Law-like regularity versus historical contingency. Does ecology have general laws? If so, what are the causal properties of ecological systems that ground these regularities? Is the existence of such laws consistent with neo-Darwinian selection theory operating at the level of individual organisms? At what levels of organization should we expect to see such laws?
The epistemology of modeling. What is the proper role of theoretical models and model-building in ecological science? If models can only give approximate descriptions of real-world ecological systems, how should their predictions be tested and assessed.? Should we interpret theoretical models realistically or as mere tools for organizing, explaining, and predicting observable patterns in ecological data?
Model-driven versus data-driven research traditions. Should ecological research focus on empirical case studies of particular ecological systems rather than general model-building? How should we compare the results of controlled ecological experiments with the results of comparative field studies of natural systems? What are the weaknesses and advantages of each approach?
Evolution and ecology. Is natural selection acting at the level ofindividual organisms sufficient to explain the organization and structure of communities? Do ecosystems coevolve with their component species populations? How, in general, do evolutionary and ecological mechanisms interact?
This list is incomplete, but the majority of philosophers of science who specialize in the philosophy of ecology have research programs that bear directly on some subset of these questions.
Have any consensus views emerged with respect to any of these questions? As with any branch of philosophy it would be overly optimistic to expect consensus on founda-tional questions. One can, however, identify historical and recent trends in how ecologists and philosophers have viewed these issues. One can say, for example, that the 1950s and 1960s were dominated by holistic approaches in ecology, and there was a high degree of optimism about the prospect of a mature ecological science that could compare favorably with law-governed fields like physics. Opinion swung the other way in the 1970s and 1980s with the rise to dominance of evolutionary and population approaches in ecology, during which period greater emphasis was placed on historically contingent, site-specific features of ecological systems, along with an attending skepticism about laws in ecology and criticism of holistic approaches in ecology generally. Professional philosophers of science have really only started looking at these questions within the last 15 years, but recent work indicates that the pendulum is swinging back to a more intermediate position between the holistic optimism of the 1950s and the reductionistic pessimism of the 1980s.
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