Ecology Reductionism Versus Holism
Annette Voigt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0063


In the philosophy of ecology, the reductionism-holism debate is an integral part. In the broadest sense, it is about the relationship between wholes and their parts. What all holisms (also known as wholisms or emergentisms) have in common includes the principle that the whole has priority over its parts, the assumption that properties of the whole can’t be explained by the properties of its parts (doctrine of emergence), and reservations about any form of simplification. On the side of reductionism (also referred to as reductivism, atomism, or physicalism), the common thread among different positions consists, above all, of their emphasizing that complex phenomena should be explained by statements about phenomena of a simpler nature, and that science essentially means reduction. In ecology, the wholes are generally groups of organisms of different species (e.g., associations, communities, or ecosystems), and the parts are individual organisms. Therefore, the reductionism-holism debate mostly takes the form of a controversy between individualism and organicism. The main controversies are sparked by questions of if, how, and how far individuals are integrated into groups. Individualism (also called individualist or individualistic theory) answers this based on the individual organism. According to some individualistic theories, “community” is merely a name for a group of individuals, gathered together more or less at random, in a place where they find suitable environmental conditions. Others assign a significant impact to interspecific relationships (i.e., interactions among organisms of different species)—in particular competition or predation. In both alternatives, succession is the result of an individual establishment; new species may be added at any time. Although the terms “individualism” and “reductionism” are often used interchangeably, it is useful to distinguish them, because individualism is holistic in some sense, and because in contrast to the community, the individual organisms are thought of as wholes and are not reduced to the interactions of their parts. By contrast, organicism (also referred to as organismic, organicist, or organicistic theory) conceives “community” as an organic community or “superorganism”: the relationship between the part and the whole is like the relationship between organ and organism. Organisms are connected through mutual relationships in such a way that they all contribute to the formation of functional units (e.g., primary and secondary consumers or decomposers) within the community. Communities have emergent properties (e.g., dominance, diversity), causing the whole to be more than the sum of its parts. Succession leads from poorly integrated pioneer communities to highly integrated, organic, and distinct units. However, not all forms of holisms in ecology are organicistic. In the history of ecology, a process of transformation, differentiation, and synthesis of these poles took place. Thus there are many ways of conceptualizing the relationship between individuals and the community. The reductionism-holism debate is the basis of several controversial issues in ecology. One can rarely say that a theory is clearly reductionist or holistic; it depends on the perspective and the considered level of organization (individual organism, population, community, and ecosystem). Furthermore, ontological, methodological, and epistemological aspects of these problems have to be distinguished. Another complication is that holistic-oriented researchers use reductionist methods, and vice versa.

General Overviews

Ecology is a subdiscipline of biology, which studies the relations organisms have with each other and with their natural environment. Therefore, the debate on reductionism and holism is as relevant in ecology as it is in biology as a whole. Overviews, useful textbooks, and introductions to the topic of reductionism and holism can be found in the philosophy of biology/ecology and the history of ecology. The publications in this section provide systematic overviews of and introductions to the reductionism-holism debate from the philosophy-of-science perspective: in biology as a whole and to the specific debate in ecology. There are also publications from the historiography of ecology, which are concerned with the debate. These publications do not aim as much at a systematic explanation of holism and reductionism but, rather, indicate when which question was asked and discussed by whom in ecology.

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