Seven general scientific theories have changed our perception of nature radically during the last 100 years: general and special relativity, quantum theory, quantum complementarity, Godel's theorem, chaos theory, and theory for far-from-thermodynamic equilibrium systems. With these seven theories, we understand today that nature is much more complex than we thought 100 years ago, but we also have tools to understand this complexity better, which has entailed that we have a general ecosystem theory today.
The speed of light is the absolute upper limit for any transmission of matter, energy, and information according to the special relativity theory. This has given a completely new meaning to the concept of locality. It has also in systems ecology brought another meaning of network: links among components that share a locality and of the hierarchical organization: networks of smaller and smaller localities that are linked together on the next level of the hierarchy. Relativity theory also gives us a clear understanding of the lack of absolute measures, which was the governing scientific perception before the twentieth century. When we use ecological indicators to assess ecosystem health, we can only apply them relatively to other (similar) ecosystems; and, when we use thermo-dynamic calculations of ecosystems we know that we cannot get the absolute value but only an index or relative value because ecosystems are too complex to allow us to include all the components in our calculations. Quantum theory and later chaos theory upended the deterministic world picture: we cannot determine the future in all detail, even if we know all details of the present conditions. The world is ontically open. In the nuclear world, uncertainty is due to our inevitable impact on nuclear particles, while in ecology the uncertainty is due to the enormous complexity. Ecosystems are middle number systems. The number of components in such systems is many orders of magnitude smaller than the number of atoms in a room but too many to be countable. Further complicating the situation is that while the atoms are represented by a few different types all ecosystem components are different even among organisms of the same species. A room may contain 1028 components but they are represented by only 10 or 20 different types of molecules with exactly the same properties. An ecosystem contains in the order of 1015-1020 different components all with different individual properties and interaction potentials. It would be impossible to observe all components and even more impossible to observe all the possible interactions among these 10 -1020 different components. Such complexity leads to a nondeterministic picture in ecology. In accordance with quantum complementarity, light can only be described by an interpretation as both waves and particles (photons). An ecosystem is much more complex than light. Therefore, a full (holistic) description of an ecosystem will also, not surprisingly, require two or more complementary descriptions. Various descriptions suggest ecosystems as dissipative, self-organizing systems that follow a dynamic to increase energy, emergy (see Emergy), ascendency (see Ecological
Network Analysis, Ascendency), or eco-exergy (see Eco-Exergy as an Ecosystem Health Indicator) which are not in conflict, because they cover different aspects of the ecosystem. All descriptions help to understand ecosystem dynamics, but some may be more applicable for addressing specific ecosystem questions.
Godel's theorem that there are no complete theories -they are all based on some assumptions - is of course also valid for ecological theories. We shall not expect a complete theory based on no assumptions and which can be used in all contexts.
Newtonian Physics is based on the reversibility of all processes. Prigogine's new interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics has shown that time has an arrow. All processes are irreversible and evolution is rooted in this irreversibility. Einstein's special relativity theory, which provides the speed of light as an upper speed making it impossible to change the light signals which give information about a previous event, also supports the principle of irreversibility. We cannot change the past but only the future. With the enormous complexity of ecosystems it also implies that the same conditions will never be repeated . Ecosystems are always confronted in space and time with new challenges, which explains the enormous diversity that characterizes the biosphere. Clearly, systems ecology has not developed in a vacuum, but has been largely influenced by the general scientific development during the last 100 years. A summary of a general ecosystem theory is presented here. The current proposed theory consists of ten laws.
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