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CSU EY 505 - Ecology is not rocket science

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107LockwoodEcology is not rocket sciencedale R. Lockwooddepartment of Mathematics, Colorado State University, USEcology is the foundation of the methods used in conservation, pest, rangeland, for-est and fisheries management. A theme among many ecologists is the need to jus-tify the science as a rigorous discipline. Coupled with this is the notion that phys-ics represents an ideal model of a rigorous science. To that end recent discussions in the literature have placed emphasis on identifying Laws of ecology. In particular, Malthusian growth has been identified as a prime candidate for an ecological law, and much has been written favorably compar-ing the expression to Newton’s laws of motion. Malthusian growth is shown here to be a poor example of a potential ecologi-cal law, largely due its numerous ceteris paribus conditions and lack of universal-ity. In fact, as a simple linear model, Mal-thusian growth fails to adequately address the nonlinear complexities that make ecology such a rich and fascinating disci-pline. Ecological theory would do well to ignore comparisons to other sciences and focus on explaining the complex dynamics within ecology. Introductionthe management of systems exhibit-ing complexity is not more apparent or important than in natural ecosystems. With the world’s fisheries in global decline, rangeland desertification spreading and the IUCN red list growing annually there is no doubt about the importance of understanding management with regards to environmental issues. Issues such as the spread of new dis-eases (think West Nile Virus, Chronic Wasting disease, avian influenza, to name a few), inva-sive species, and multiple resistance bacteria it is clear that there is a substantial ecological component to problems facing the medicine, agriculture, city planning, recreation, public health and a myriad other organizations. the management of natural systems, either through conservation, restoration, in-Ecology is not rocket scienceE:CO Issue Vol. 9 Nos. 1-2 2007 pp. 107-119tegrated pest management, fisheries regula-tions or other means is based scientifically on ecological results. Good management practices require some level of confidence that an action taking will result in a specific outcome. Causal-ity in ecology has proven difficult and gener-alizations of results are even more challenging for the science. Ecology requires a firm philo-sophical foundation that will allow a frame-work of theoretical results to inform empirical studies which can be utilized by managers to implement policy decisions. Ultimately, un-derstanding ecology is critical to organizing our societies for a sustainable future. the sciences that are most directly as-sociated with the notion of complexity are also those sciences in which the debate about laws governing them still holds sway (fodor, 1989; McIntyre, 1998; Mikulecky, 2000; Carroll, 2003; Hausman, 2003; Lyman & O’Brien, 2004). Consider the role of laws in ecology. Although much attention has been given to this question recently, the most frequently suggested laws are plagued with problems that raise doubt about their validity. Ecologists frequently compare their science to physics, and particularly Newtonian mechanics which is often taken as an ideal formulation of sci-ence. Recently proposed ecological laws have been equated – or at least favorably compared – to Newton’s Laws of Motion. Unfortunately, there appears to be much confusion about the nature and structure of Newton’s Laws of Mo-tion that casts doubt on the usefulness or va-lidity of such comparisons. Such comparisons, even if invalid, do not obviate the proposed laws from lawhood, but further examination demonstrates that for one of the most com-mon of the proposed ecological laws, there can be little support for it. Even if the suggested laws are not sufficiently law-like, there may be other suitable candidates, so a formulation of ecology in the mold of classical mechanics might be conceivable. However, before such a venture is seriously pursued a more important question remains: what is – or should be – the Philosophy108E:CO Vol. 9 Nos. 1-2 2007 pp. 107-119theoretical structure of ecology? As we shall see, laws, and in particular physical laws, carry with them a certain concept that the processes they describe are either simply expressions of the laws or additive assemblages of the laws. Ecological processes are strongly resistant to the development of additive functions that adequately describe such processes. Ecological processes are complex and as such aggregative laws are likely unsuitable as a theoretical foun-dation to underpin the science. The role of Lawthe notion of a law of science is prob-lematic (Armstrong, 1983; Cartwright, 1983; Van fraassen, 1989; Carroll, 1990; Lange, 1993; Lewis, 1994; Giere,1999; Maturana, 2000; Murray, 2000) and with re-spect to ecological laws several approaches are used. A general working definition for such a law is a factual truth (as opposed to a logical truth) that is spatio-temporally universal, sup-ports counterfactuals and has a high level of necessity (or resilience as per Cooper, 2003). this definition precludes simple patterns un-less such patterns demonstrate a high level of necessity. Berryman (2003) argues for prin-ciples rather than laws in defining governing equations. Berryman’s use of principle derives from general definitions of laws and principles and is quite different from a more scientifically oriented definition (Parker, 1989). Lawton (1999) divides laws into general and univer-sal and argues that the idea of a general law is more appropriate for ecology. Lange (2005) discounts both Berryman and Lawton claim-ing that both give a definition of a law that is simply a general truth. Murray (2000) argues for the existence of universal ecological laws. In each case some aspect of ecology has been nominated as a law (table 1). Ecology is a broad science and any likely law will be with respect to a narrow subdiscipline. I will restrict my fur-ther consideration of ecological laws to popula-tion dynamics. this subdiscipline provides an exemplary case, being one of the most highly quantified and seemingly


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