Philosophy of Paleoecology

Paleoecology is primarily a descriptive historical science involving inductive reasoning and research approaches and techniques drawn from the earth and biological sciences. Its language is therefore derived from both sciences. As fossils are central to paleoecology, careful identification, sound taxonomy, and unambiguous nomenclature are essential.

The method of multiple working hypotheses, presented by Thomas Chamberlain in the mid-nineteenth century, is essential in paleoecology as several explanations are often possible for an observed biotic change. The principle of simplicity (Occam's razor), proposed by William of Occam (1280-1349) is also essential. It proposes that given a set of competing explanations, all of which offer an adequate explanation for a given data set, the simplest explanation is preferable.

An essential assumption and philosophical principle in paleoecology is uniformitarianism, namely 'the present is the key to the past'. Since James Hutton (Figure 1) in the late eighteenth century and Charles Lyell (Figure 1) in the nineteenth century, earth scientists have debated this assumption. Stephen Jay Gould resolved the debate by emphasizing the fundamental distinction between substantive uniformitarianism where rates of geological processes are thought to be constant in time and methodological uniformitarianism or actualism where the nature of the processes and their underlying laws are assumed to be the same through time but the rates may be very different at different times. Catastrophes (e.g., floods and volcanic eruptions) do occur so the rates of change can vary greatly but they all follow the basic laws ofnature because the properties ofmatter and energy are invariant with time. Methodological uniformitarianism is an untestable methodological assumption common to all sciences. It represents the simplest approach to paleoecol-ogy and is thus an application of the principles of simplicity and induction.

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