Ecological Laws

Mark Colyvan and Lev R. Ginzburg

in Ecology

ISBN: 9780199830060
Published online May 2012 | | DOI:
Ecological Laws

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  • Applied Ecology (Environmental Science)
  • Ecology and Conservation
  • Plant Ecology
  • Zoology and Animal Sciences


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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.

Article.  4009 words. 

Subjects: Applied Ecology (Environmental Science) ; Ecology and Conservation ; Plant Ecology ; Zoology and Animal Sciences

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