The Need for Fundamental Laws

Humans have always strived toward finding a structure or a pattern in their observations - to develop a theory. Science does not make sense without theory. Without theory, our observations become only a beautiful collection of impressions without explanation or application to solve problems of human interest. The alternative to scientific theory is to observe everything which is not possible. A well-developed theory can be used to make predictions.

Our scientific knowledge has to be coherent in order to apply the underlying theory and explain our observations. Ecology has only partially been able to condense the systematic collection of observations and knowledge about ecosystems into testable laws and principles. During the last few decades systems ecologists have developed hypotheses that together with basic laws from biochemistry and thermodynamics are proposed as a first attempt to formulate fundamental laws in ecology. The inherent complexity of ecosystems means that it is necessary to break from the long reductionistic scientific tradition to a new holistic ecological approach. Reductionistic science has had a continuous chain of successes since Descartes and Newton. Lately, however, there is an increasing understanding for the need of knowledge syntheses to a more holistic image. Today this search for a holistic understanding of complex systems is considered one of the greatest scientific challenges of the twenty-first century by many scientists.

Several important contributions to systems ecology have attempted to capture the features and characteristics of ecosystems, their processes, and their dynamics. The different theories and approaches look inconsistent at first glance, but when examined more closely, their complementarity becomes evident . This commonality and consensus regarding ecosystem dynamics was asserted by J0rgensen in the first edition of Integration of Ecosystem Theories. A Pattern (1992), and later editions (2nd edn. 1997 and 3rd edn. 2002) have only enhanced the perception that the theories form a pattern and that they are highly consistent. It is clear from recent meetings and discussions that today we have a general ecosystem theory which is rooted in a consensus of the pattern of ecosystem dynamics. The ecosystem theory presented here combines the work of several scientists, and provides a foundation for further progress in systems ecology, ecosystem theory, and ecology. Furthermore, it may be feasible to use a few fundamental laws to derive other laws to explain most observations. We do not know yet to what extent this is possible in ecology, but at least we propose a promising direction for a useful, comprehensive ecosystem theory. Only by the application of the theory can we assess how and where the theory needs improvements.

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