, Volume 59, Issue 3-4, pp 251-271

Causal and Mechanistic Explanations in Ecology

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Abstract

How are scientific explanations possible in ecology, given that there do not appear to be many—if any—ecological laws? To answer this question, I present and defend an account of scientific causal explanation in which ecological generalizations are explanatory if they are invariant rather than lawlike. An invariant generalization continues to hold or be valid under a special change—called an intervention—that changes the value of its variables. According to this account, causes are difference-makers that can be intervened upon to manipulate or control their effects. I apply the account to ecological generalizations to show that invariance under interventions as a criterion of explanatory relevance provides interesting interpretations for the explanatory status of many ecological generalizations. Thus, I argue that there could be causal explanations in ecology by generalizations that are not, in a strict sense, laws. I also address the issue of mechanistic explanations in ecology by arguing that invariance and modularity constitute such explanations.