Generalizations in ecology: A philosophical taxonomy [Book Review]

Biology and Philosophy 13 (4):555-586 (1998)

Abstract

There has been a significant amount of uncertainty and controversy over the prospects for general knowledge in ecology. Environmental decision makers have begun to despair of ecology's capacity to provide anything more than case by case guidance for the shaping of environmental policy. Ecologists themselves have become suspicious of the pursuit of the kind of genuine nomothetic knowledge that appears to be the hallmark of other scientific domains. Finally, philosophers of biology have contributed to this retreat from generality by suggesting that there really are no laws in biology. This paper addresses these issues by providing a framework for thinking about general knowledge claims in ecology. It introduces a philosophical taxonomy that classifies generalizations into three broad categories – phenomenological, causal and theoretical. It then turns to the difficult problem of laws, arguing that, while there are probably no laws as that term has been understood in philosophy of science, it doesn't follow that everything in ecology is equally contingent. A mechanism for recognizing degrees of contingency in ecological generalizations is developed. The paper concludes by examining the implications of the analysis for the controversies noted at the outset.

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