Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

Ecology Is Not Rocket Science

Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

Ecology Is Not Rocket Science

Article excerpt

Ecology is the foundation of the methods used in conservation, pest, rangeland, forest and fisheries management. A theme among many ecologiste is the need to justify the science as a rigorous discipline. Coupled with this is the notion that physics 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 comparing the expression to Newton's laws of motion. Malthusian growth is shown here to be a poor example of a potential ecological law, largely due its numerous ceteris paribus conditions and lack of universality. In fact, as a simple linear model, Malthusian growth fails to adequately address the nonlinear complexities that make ecology such a rich and fascinating discipline. Ecological theory would do well to ignore comparisons to other sciences and focus on explaining the complex dynamics within ecology.

Introduction

The management of systems exhibiting 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 diseases (think West Nile Virus, Chronic Wasting Disease, avian influenza, to name a few), invasive 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, integrated pest management, fisheries regulations 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. Causality in ecology has proven difficult and generalizations of results are even more challenging for the science. Ecology requires a firm philosophical foundation that will allow a framework of theoretical results to inform empirical studies which can be utilized by managers to implement policy decisions. Ultimately, understanding ecology is critical to organizing our societies for a sustainable future.

The sciences that are most directly associated with the notion ofcomplexity are also those sciences in which the debate about laws governing them still holds sway (Fodor, 1989; Mclntyre, 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 science. 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 Motion that casts doubt on the usefulness or validity 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 common 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 theoretical 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. …

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