, Volume 24, Issue 4, pp 521-529
Date: 30 Apr 2009

Is there a general theory of community ecology?

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Abstract

Community ecology entered the 1970s with the belief that niche theory would supply a general theory of community structure. The lack of wide-spread empirical support for niche theory led to a focus on models specific to classes of communities such as lakes, intertidal communities, and forests. Today, the needs of conservation biology for metrics of “ecological health” that can be applied across types of communities prompts a renewed interest in the possibility of general theory for community ecology. Disputes about the existence of general patterns in community structure trace at least to the 1920s and continue today almost unchanged in concept, although now expressed through mathematical modeling. Yet, a new framework emerged in the 1980s from findings that community composition and structure depend as much on the processes that bring species to the boundaries of a community as by processes internal to a community, such as species interactions and co-evolution. This perspective, termed “supply-side ecology”, argued that community ecology was to be viewed as an “organic earth science” more than as a biological science. The absence of a general theory of the earth would then imply a corresponding absence of any general theory for the communities on the earth, and imply that the logical structure of theoretical community ecology would consist of an atlas of models special to place and geologic time. Nonetheless, a general theory of community ecology is possible similar in form to the general theory for evolution if the processes that bring species to the boundary of a community are analogized to mutation, and the processes that act on the species that arrive at a community are analogized to selection. All communities then share some version of this common narrative, permitting general theorems to be developed pertaining to all ecological communities. Still, the desirability of a general theory of community ecology is debatable because the existence of a general theory suppresses diversity of thought even as it allows generalizations to be derived. The pros and cons of a general theory need further discussion.