Beyond the limit: carrying capacity (K) and the holism/reductionism debate

History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 43 (3):1-25 (2021)
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Abstract

As the debate about holism and reductionism in ecology has ebbed in the last twenty years, this article aims to reassess the traditional opposition between holistic and reductionist epistemologies during the development of population biology. The history of the notion of carrying capacity, the upper demographic limit of a viable population, will be analyzed as a paradigmatic case of the progressive imposition of reductionist strategies, from both an epistemological and a semantic point of view, since the middle of the twentieth century. Then, Richard Looijen’s reduction of the carrying capacity concept to the niche partitioning theory will be assessed and rebuked for both empirical and logical reasons. Eventually, some recent “weak” and “hard” emergent conceptualizations of the notion of carrying capacity, in logistic map models or in coupled niche-population systems, will be presented in order to show how they call into question the nature and the use of the notion of carrying capacity as a predefined ecological limit.

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