Regular Article

Acta Biotheoretica

, Volume 60, Issue 3, pp 257-271

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

The Neutral—Niche Debate: A Philosophical Perspective

  • Paul L. WennekesAffiliated withCommunity and Conservation Ecology Group, University of Groningen
  • , James RosindellAffiliated withInstitute of Integrative and Comparative Biology, University of Leeds
  • , Rampal S. EtienneAffiliated withCommunity and Conservation Ecology Group, University of Groningen Email author 


Ecological communities around the world are under threat while a consensus theory of community structure remains elusive. In the last decade ecologists have struggled with two seemingly opposing theories: niche-based theory that explains diversity with species’ differences and the neutral theory of biodiversity that claims that much of the diversity we observe can be explained without explicitly invoking species’ differences. Although ecologists are increasingly attempting to reconcile these two theories, there is still much resistance against the neutral theory of biodiversity. Here we argue that the dispute between the two theories is a classic example of the dichotomy between philosophical perspectives, realism and instrumentalism. Realism is associated with specific, small-scale and detailed explanations, whereas instrumentalism is linked to general, large-scale, but less precise accounts. Recognizing this will help ecologists get both niche-based and neutral theories in perspective as useful tools for understanding biodiversity patterns.


Dispersal-assembly Niche-assembly