From laws to models and mechanisms: Ecology in the twentieth century

Philosophers, and to a lesser degree historians, have paid much less attention to the discipline of ecology than to other areas of science (e.g. physics, chemistry, biology) as a focus for addressing issues in the philosophy of science. In this paper, I hope to begin to address this imbalance. There is much to be learned from ecology about some of the current issues in the philosophy of science. Because ecology is a relatively young discipline, it is possible to trace significant changes in the relative importance of concepts such as laws, theories, models and mechanisms in historically short periods of time. To a large extent, the history of ecology serves as a microcosm of the larger history of science. My focus is on the origins of population ecology in the 1920’s and 30’s (see Kingsland, 1985, for a good overview). My thesis is that in this early period in the development of population ecology, for some ecologists (especially Pearl), the development of mathematics was integral to the search for laws in ecology. However, I will argue that while mathematical models continue to play a central role in ecology, the significance of generalizable ecological laws is much less prevalent today. In the early history of population ecology, emphasis was placed on the discovery of laws in the development of general theories. In contemporary ecological research, the emphasis is on modeling, with a corresponding search for underlying ecological mechanisms. Philosophers of science working in other areas have recognized a similar shift, from laws and theories to models and mechanisms. The context of ecology provides a new arena in which to examine this shift.
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