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  • Print publication year: 2021
  • Online publication date: May 2021

2 - Distinctively Ecological Laws and the Reality of Biological Communities


This chapter connects philosophy of ecology with two central issues in philosophy of science: what marks the real, and the nature of laws of nature. On the former, biological communities are the problem case. Are they anything more than the individual organisms of different species comprising them? Answering requires evaluation of community structure and dynamics, species distribution patterns, and how interspecific groups might assemble into communities. Individualists, for example, argue species distributions along environmental gradients overlap continuously and significantly, do not form discrete boundaries, and that communities are only real if such distinct boundaries exist. On laws, various challenges confront the idea of distinctively ecological laws: the relative paucity of predictive success in ecology, that its models and experimental results lack sufficient generality, that candidate laws are riddled with exceptions, and that ecosystems are too complex. Some philosophers argue that other properties thought to preclude a discipline from trading in laws – limited predictive accuracy and generality, not being exceptionless – should be jettisoned. Ecology, they argue, has uncovered regularities – Gause’s law of competitive exclusion and numerous allometries – possessing a kind of necessity and therefore meriting the “natural law.” These arguments are found wanting.