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

Introduction

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.

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  • 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.

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    • 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.

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    • 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.

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    • 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.

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    • 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.”

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    • 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.

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    • 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.

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    • 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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    Laws of Nature

    Useful discussions of what laws might be and the roles they play in science can be found in Armstrong 1984, Harré 2000, Lange 2000, and Lange 2002, with a range of positions defended. Of particular note are Cartwright 1983, Giere 1999, and van Fraassen 1989, which are rather deflationary about the role of laws in science. Also of note is Duhem 1954, which argues that falsifying or confirming hypotheses or laws one at a time is not possible. The point of departure for much of this work is Hempel’s account of laws’ playing a central role in scientific explanation. This view is presented in Hempel 1966.

    • Armstrong, D. M. 1984. What is a law of nature? Cambridge Studies in Philosophy. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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      This short monograph offers a good critical overview of some of the traditional philosophical thinking on what laws of nature are and how they feature in scientific theorizing.

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    • Cartwright, Nancy. 1983. How the laws of physics lie. Oxford: Clarendon.

      DOI: 10.1093/0198247044.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      An influential work in which a case is made that laws, even in physics, are false.

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    • Duhem, Pierre. 1954. The aim and structure of physical theory. Translated by Philip P. Wiener. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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      Originally published in French in 1906. This classic book presents a compelling case for the thesis that hypotheses are not confirmed or disconfirmed individually; only systems of hypotheses are confirmed or disconfirmed. If Duhem is right, this would hold for laws as well.

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    • Giere, Ronald N. 1999. Science without laws. Science and Its Conceptual Foundations. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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      A book-length defense of the view that science does not have nor need laws.

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    • Harré, Rom. 2000. Laws of nature. In A companion to the philosophy of science. Blackwell Companions to Philosophy. Edited by W. H. Newton-Smith, 213–223. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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      A good overview of philosophical thinking on the laws of nature.

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    • Hempel, Carl G. 1966. Philosophy of natural science. Prentice-Hall Foundations of Philosophy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

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      A classic introduction to the philosophy of science, discussing, among other things, the role of laws in science, written by one of the major figures in the area.

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      • Lange, Marc. 2000. Natural laws in scientific practice. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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        A good book-length discussion of the roles of laws in science, including in the special sciences.

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      • Lange, Marc. 2002. Who’s afraid of ceteris-paribus laws? Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love them. In Special issue: Ceteris paribus laws. Erkenntnis 57.3: 407–423.

        DOI: 10.1023/A:1021546731582Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        Discusses the role of ceteris paribus clauses in laws and argues that ceteris paribus generalizations in inexact sciences, such as ecology, do qualify as laws. Available online through purchase.

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        • van Fraassen, Bas C. 1989. Laws and symmetry. Oxford: Clarendon.

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          Has a very good discussion of laws in science—what they are supposed to be and why there may be nothing that lives up to this.

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        Biological Laws

        It is useful to consider the broader question of biological laws. If biology as a whole fails to have laws, then ecology would be expected to follow suit. Moreover, the lack of laws in ecology would be well understood and would follow from the lack of laws in biology. If, however, biology does have laws, and ecology does not, then there would seem to be interesting methodological differences between ecology and the rest of biology. In any case, the issue of laws in biology is important when assessing the cases for and against laws in ecology. Some of the discussion of laws in biology in general can be found in Brandon 1997 and Cartwright 1999 (both cited under Ecology and Physics), Cooper 1996, Cooper 2003, Rosenberg 1994, Smart 1963, Sober 1997, and Waters 1998. Most of the literature on the topic is skeptical of the existence of biological laws, but there are a few works that speak out in favor, such as Elgin 2006 and Ruse 1970.

        • Cooper, Gregory. 1996. Theoretical modeling and biological laws. In Special issue: Proceedings of the 1996 biennial meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association: Part I: Contributed papers. Edited by Lindley Darden. Philosophy of Science 63:S28–S35.

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          This paper contends that if there are no laws in biology, explanation cannot be easily accommodated. The paper concludes that we need to rethink the relationship between laws and explanation. Available online through purchase.

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          • Cooper, Gregory J. 2003. The science of the struggle for existence: On the foundations of ecology. Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and Biology. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

            DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511720154Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

            A very good book on the philosophy of ecology that explicitly addresses the issue of laws in ecology and biology more generally.

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          • Elgin, Mehmet. 2006. There may be strict empirical laws in biology, after all. Biology and Philosophy 21.1: 119–134.

            DOI: 10.1007/s10539-005-3177-zSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

            Argues against the skeptics about biological laws. Makes the case that there are laws in biology, giving specific examples. Much of the case against the skeptical view holds for skepticism about ecological laws as well. Available online through purchase.

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            • Rosenberg, Alexander. 1994. Instrumental biology, or, the disunity of science. Science and Its Conceptual Foundations. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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              Argues against the existence of strict biological laws.

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            • Ruse, Michael E. 1970. Are there laws in biology? Australasian Journal of Philosophy 48.2: 234–246.

              DOI: 10.1080/00048407012341201Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

              Takes issue with the argument in Smart 1963 that biology does not have laws. Available online through purchase.

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              • Smart, J. J. C. 1963. Philosophy and scientific realism. International Library of Philosophy and Scientific Method. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

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                This classic account of realism in science asserts, in passing, that biology does not have laws.

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                • Sober, Elliott. 1997. Two outbreaks of lawlessness in recent philosophy of biology. In Special issue: Proceedings of the 1996 biennial meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association: Part II: Symposia papers. Edited by Lindley Darden. Philosophy of Science 64:S458–S467.

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                  Makes a case for biology’s having problems with identifying laws. Available online through purchase.

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                  • Waters, C. Kenneth. 1998. Causal regularities in the biological world of contingent distributions. Biology and Philosophy 13.1: 5–36.

                    DOI: 10.1023/A:1006572017907Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                    Analyzes the role of biological generalizations and argues that, once these are properly understood, they play roles very similar to those of laws.

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                    Against Ecological Laws

                    A number of works have suggested that ecology is not law governed (Lockwood 2008, Roughgarden 1998, Shrader-Frechette 2001) or that ecology is better construed as a science in which laws do not play a central role (Hansson 2003, Sarkar 1996, Shrader-Frechette and McCoy 1993). Many reasons are offered for such conclusions, but the lack of precision in the candidate laws, the lack of generality, and the complexity of ecology are common themes in this literature. Such considerations give rise to a range of positions, from the view that ecology lacks laws and thus is not rightfully thought of as a science (Murray 1999), to the alternative view that ecology does not have laws nor does it need them in order to justify as a legitimate branch of science (Cooper 1998, cited under Ecology and Physics; O’Hara 2005). McIntosh 1987 suggests that ecology cannot be treated as one science in this regard: different branches of ecology have different methods and goals. Lange 2005 (cited under Ecology and Physics) provides a good discussion of what is at issue in the debate over ecological laws.

                    Ecology and Physics

                    Much of the debate over laws in ecology focuses on the alleged differences between ecology and apparently law-governed branches of science, such as physics. Most of the work on this issue highlights the differences in methodology between ecology and physics (Brandon 1997, Cooper 1998, Lockwood 2007, Murray 1992, Quenette and Gerard 1993). Lange 2005 argues for the autonomy of ecology from physics. Other texts, such as Cartwright 1999 and Dupré 1993, assert that methodological differences in science are widespread and that it is a mistake to think of science as employing a unified method of inquiry. Fagerström 1987 tackles the related question of the relationship between theory and data in ecology.

                    • Brandon, Robert N. 1997. Does biology have laws? The experimental evidence. In Special issue: Proceedings of the 1996 biennial meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association: Part II: Symposia papers. Edited by Lindley Darden. Philosophy of Science 64:S444–S457.

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                      Contends that experimental practice in biology differs from that of physics in important ways and that this suggests that biology does not have laws. Available online through purchase.

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                      • Cartwright, Nancy. 1999. The dappled world: A study of the boundaries of science. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                        This book makes the case that there are significant differences between the different branches of science and that they function more or less autonomously.

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                      • Cooper, Gregory. 1998. Generalizations in ecology: A philosophical taxonomy. Biology and Philosophy 13.4: 555–586.

                        DOI: 10.1023/A:1006508101996Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                        Takes something of the middle ground on the laws in ecology issue, suggesting that although there probably are not any laws in ecology, it is possible to achieve general knowledge in this area. Available online through purchase.

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                        • Dupré, John. 1993. The disorder of things: Metaphysical foundations of the disunity of science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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                          Argues against there being any unity to science, leaning heavily on biology as a prime example of a disorderly science.

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                        • Fagerström, Torbjörn. 1987. On theory, data and mathematics in ecology. Oikos 50.2: 258–261.

                          DOI: 10.2307/3566010Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                          Argues against the priority of data over theory. This is important in the present context because most of the laws in ecology appear to have conflicting evidence. Available online by subscription.

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                          • Lange, Marc. 2005. Ecological laws: What would they be and why would they matter? Oikos 110.2: 394–403.

                            DOI: 10.1111/j.0030-1299.2005.14110.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                            Clears away some confusion about what laws are supposed to be and why they matter. Then makes a case for what ecological laws would look like and asserts that the existence of such ecological laws would render ecology autonomous from physics. Available online through purchase.

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                            • Lockwood, Dale R. 2007. Ecology is not rocket science. Emergence: Complexity and Organization 9.2: 49–58.

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                              Argues against there being relevant similarities between physics and ecology.

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                              • Murray, Bertram G., Jr. 1992. Research methods in physics and biology. Oikos 64.3: 594–596.

                                DOI: 10.2307/3545180Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                Proposes that ecologists think quite differently from physicists and that ecology is thus rather different from physics. Available online by subscription.

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                                • Quenette, P. Y., and J. F. Gerard. 1993. Why biologists do not think like Newtonian physicists. Oikos 68.2: 361–363.

                                  DOI: 10.2307/3544852Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                  Makes the case for there being significant methodological differences between ecology and physics, for example, with regard to the existence and role of laws. Available online by subscription.

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                                  For Ecological Laws

                                  Other authors defend the view that there are laws in ecology. Some interesting cases are made, often appealing to the similarities with physics. The case for there being laws in ecology is thus closely related to the question of the similarities and differences between the methodologies of ecology and physics. Examples of works sympathetic to the idea that ecology has laws are Colyvan 2004, Colyvan 2008, Colyvan and Ginzburg 2003, Dodds 2009, Ginzburg and Colyvan 2004, Mikkelson 2003, Turchin 2001, and Weber 1999. Those explicitly making the case that there are important similarities between physics and ecology include Colyvan and Ginzburg 2010 and Ginzburg 1986 (the latter cited under Candidate Laws).

                                  Candidate Laws

                                  If one accepts that there are laws in ecology, it is very natural to ask what these laws are. Several of works make suggestions for candidate laws (e.g., Colyvan and Ginzburg 2003 and Turchin 2001, both cited under For Ecological Laws). Others making cases for specific candidate laws are Arditi and Ginzburg 2012 and Berryman 2003. A popular candidate for an ecological law is Malthusian growth (Colyvan and Ginzburg 2003, Ginzburg 1986, Turchin 2003). The various metabolic allometries are further examples advanced as candidate laws (e.g., Atkinson 1994). See Calder 1984 for a good overview of the allometries, Lawton 1999 for a case that these qualify as laws, and Ginzburg and Damuth 2008 for an attempt to unify them. There are many other candidate laws, but in the context of the debate over whether there are laws in ecology, the focus of the discussion has mainly been on Malthusian growth and the metabolic allometries. The works in this section are a sample of representative material on this issue. (It should be noted that some suggestions of ecological laws are made on the assumption that there are laws. These suggestions should not be thought of as weighing into the debate over whether there really are laws in ecology. In any case, there are other candidate laws to be found in the literature, but this section limits its attention to the literature that most directly engages with the debate in question.)

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