Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 1, Issue 4, pp 377-387

First online:

On the semiotic dimension of ecological theory: The case of island biogeography

  • Yrjö HailaAffiliated withDept. of Zoology, University of Helsinki

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The Macarthur-Wilson equilibrium theory of island biogeography has had a contradictory role in ecology. As a lasting contribution, the theory has created a new way of viewing insular environments as dynamical systems. On the other hand, many of the applications of the theory have reduced to mere unimaginative curve-fitting. I analyze this paradox in semiotic terms: the theory was mainly equated with the simple species-area relationship which became a ‘signifier’ of interesting island ecology. The theory is, however, better viewed as a theoretical framework that suggests specific hypotheses on the ecology of colonization of insular environments. This paradox is inherent in the use of simplifying analytic models. Analytic models are necessary and fruitful in the work of ecologists, but they ought to be supplemented with a broader, pluralistic appreciation of the role of theories in general.

Key words

Semiotics ecological theory island biogeography