Ecology Ecological Laws
Mark Colyvan, Lev R. Ginzburg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0046


The question of whether there are laws in ecology is important for a number of reasons. If, as some have suggested, there are no ecological laws, this would seem to distinguish ecology from other branches of science, such as physics. It could also make a difference as to the methodology of ecology. If there are no laws to be discovered, ecologists would seem to be in the business of merely supplying a suite of useful models. These models would need to be assessed for their empirical adequacy but not for their ability to capture fundamental truths or the like. If, however, ecology does have laws, this prompts further questions about what these laws are and why even the best candidates for ecological laws fall short of what might be expected of laws. Such issues lead very naturally to the philosophical question of what laws in science are. There is no straightforward answer to this question, and there is substantial disagreement among those engaging in the relevant debates. A common starting point, at least, is that laws in science are nonaccidental, exceptionless generalizations that make precise, falsifiable predictions. There are good reasons to doubt this account of laws, but still it serves as a useful point of departure. A great deal of the material on this topic focuses on the issue of what laws of nature are and what roles they are supposed to play in scientific theory. The debate about laws in ecology thus crops up in two different guises: directly tackling the question of laws in ecology and as a debate about the differences and similarities between ecology and physics. The literature on this topic naturally spans both ecology and philosophy of science and is generally well informed from both perspectives. Further progress on the topic of laws in ecology will need to take on board insights from both ecology and the broader interdisciplinary perspective offered by the philosophy of science.

Philosophical Background

Before determining whether there are ecological laws, a clear picture of what laws of nature are and what roles they play in other branches of science is needed. In the service of this goal, some general reading in the philosophy of science is essential. Good introductions to the philosophy of science include Chalmers 1999, Godfrey-Smith 2003, and Newton-Smith 2000. Sterelny and Griffiths 1999 provides a philosophical overview of the life sciences, whereas Colyvan, et al. 2009; Cooper 2003 (cited under Biological Laws); McIntosh 1987 (cited under Against Ecological Laws); Peters 1991; and Shrader-Frechette and McCoy 1993 (cited under Against Ecological Laws) focus on philosophical issues in ecology. Other relevant material on general philosophy of science includes Lakatos 1970, Quine and Ullian 1978, and van Fraassen 1980.

  • Chalmers, A. F. 1999. What is this thing called science? 3d ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

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    A classic introduction to the philosophy of science, including a very good critique of falsification.

  • Colyvan, Mark, Stefan Linquist, William Grey, Paul E. Griffiths, Jay Odenbaugh, and Hugh P. Possingham. 2009. Philosophical issues in ecology: Recent trends and future directions. Ecology and Society 14.2.

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    A survey article covering some of the issues in the philosophy of ecology during the early 21st century, including a discussion of laws in ecology.

  • Godfrey-Smith, Peter. 2003. Theory and reality: An introduction to the philosophy of science. Science and Its Conceptual Foundations. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    A very good introduction to the philosophy of science, covering all the main issues of contemporary interest.

  • Lakatos, Imre. 1970. Falsification and the methodology of scientific research programmes. In Criticism and the growth of knowledge. Edited by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, 91–196. Studies in Logic and the Foundations of Mathematics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    The classic critique of Popperian falsification, suggesting that crucial hypotheses (or laws) can be shielded from disconfirmation by making adjustments elsewhere.

  • Newton-Smith, W. H., ed. 2000. A companion to the philosophy of science. Blackwell Companions to Philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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    A good sourcebook for the philosophy of science.

  • Peters, R. H. 1991. A critique for ecology. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Criticizes ecology for its lack of predictive success and its poor data, suggesting that ecology is at best a “soft science.”

  • Quine, W. V. and J. S. Ullian. 1978. The web of belief. 2d ed. New York: Random House.

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    This short book is a good gentle introduction to post-Popperian philosophy of science and provides a very clear articulation of the holist thesis that hypotheses cannot be confirmed or falsified individually.

  • Sterelny, Kim, and Paul E. Griffiths. 1999. Sex and death: An introduction to the philosophy of biology. Science and Its Conceptual Foundations. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    The standard introduction to the philosophy of biology, and an excellent one at that. The text includes some discussion of issues in the philosophy of ecology.

  • van Fraassen, Bas C. 1980. The scientific image. Clarendon Library of Logic and Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon.

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    A very influential and controversial account of science as being merely in the business of producing theories that are empirically adequate, not producing theories that are true or even approximately true.

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