Philosophical issues in ecology: Recent trends and future directions

Ecology and Society 14 (2) (2009)
A good philosophical understanding of ecology is important for a number of reasons. First, ecology is an important and fascinating branch of biology, with distinctive philosophical issues. Second, ecology is only one small step away from urgent political, ethical, and management decisions about how best to live in an apparently fragile and increasingly-degraded environment. Third, philosophy of ecology, properly conceived, can contribute directly to both our understanding of ecology and help with its advancement. Philosophy of ecology can thus be seen as part of the emerging discipline of “biohumanities”, where biology and humanities disciplines together advance our understanding and knowledge of biology (Stotz and Griffiths 2008). In this paper, we focus primarily on this third role of the philosophy of ecology and consider a number of places where philosophy can play an important role in ecology. In the process, we survey some of the current research being done in philosophy of ecology, as well as make suggestions about the agenda for future research in this area. We also hope to help clarify what philosophy of ecology is and what it should aspire to be. In what follows, we discuss several topics in the philosophy of ecology and conservation biology, starting with the role and understanding of mathematical models. This is followed by a discussion of a couple of practical problems involving the standard model of hypothesis testing and the use of decision-theoretic methods in environmental science. We then move on to discuss the issue of how we should understand biodiversity, and why this matters for conservation management. Finally, we look at environmental ethics and its relationship with ecology and conservation biology. These four topics were chosen because they are all of contemporary interest in philosophy of ecology circles and are ones where there is much fruitful work still to be done. The topics in question are also useful vehicles for highlighting the variety of issues in ecology and conservation biology where philosophy might prove useful..
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