Biology & Philosophy

, 34:3 | Cite as

Does God roll dice? Neutrality and determinism in evolutionary ecology

  • Som B. Ale
  • Abdel Halloway
  • William A. Mitchell
  • Christopher J. Whelan
Area Review


A tension between perspectives that emphasize deterministic versus stochastic processes has sparked controversy in ecology since pre-Darwinian times. The most recent manifestation of the contrasting perspectives arose with Hubbell’s proposed “neutral theory”, which hypothesizes a paramount role for stochasticity in ecological community composition. Here we shall refer to the deterministic and the stochastic perspectives as the niche-based and neutral-based research programs, respectively. Our goal is to represent these perspectives in the context of Lakatos’ notion of a scientific research program. We argue that the niche-based program exhibits all the characteristics of a robust, progressive research program, including the ability to deal with disconfirming data by generating new testable predictions within the program. In contrast, the neutral-based program succeeds as a mathematical tool to capture, as epiphenomena, broad-scale patterns of ecological communities but appears to handle disconfirming data by incorporating hypotheses and assumptions from outside the program, specifically, from the niche-based program. We conclude that the neutral research program fits the Lakatosian characterization of a degenerate research program.


Determinism Neutral theory Niche theory Scientific research program Stochasticity 



Thanks are due to D. W. Morris for intellectual discussions when Som B. Ale was at Lakehead University with support from Canada’s International Polar Year program “Arctic Wildlife Observatories Linking Vulnerable EcoSystems” and Canada’ Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. The authors also thank Burt Kotler, an anonymous reviewer, and Linus Svensson for crisp comments on a previous draft of the manuscript. Abdel Halloway wishes to thank the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship (DGE-0907994 and DGE-1444315) for support. Any opinion, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors(s).


Dispersal limitation

Limitation of distribution or abundance in the vicinity of its parents because of either constraints on dispersal or inadequate production of dispersing individuals.

Ecological drift

Under ecological drift (Hubbell 2001) all individuals in the community, regardless of species, have equal probabilities of giving birth, dying, immigrating to another location, and (in one version of the model) acquiring a mutation that will eventually result in speciation. This does not mean that all species have an equal chance. Abundant species have a greater likelihood of being drawn, but only by virtue of their abundance. Individuals are equal, but species, as collective entities, are not (Norris 2003)

Ecological equivalence

when differences among individuals belonging to different species do not translate into differences in their probabilities of beingand persisting, in the present and future community

Neutrality equivalence, and symmetry

That different individuals from different species belonging to the same functionally uniform ecological community have similar birth, death and dispersal rates (Hubbell 2001; Etienne and Olff 2005). The neutrality hypothesis is that differences in species traits do not either affect the chances of that species being present or absent in a community, or influence changes in their relative abundances

Niche theory

Species can stably coexist in an ecological community if their characteristics (or traits) allow them to specialize on one particular set of resources or environment conditions (niches) in which they are superior to their competitors (Grinnell 1917; Hutchinson 1957; Chase and Leibold 2003)

Relative species abundance

The probability that a species has n individuals in a given region. When multiplied by the total number of species in the region this gives the number of species with n individuals. This is known as the species-abundance distribution


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biological Sciences M/C 066University of Illinois at ChicagoChicagoUSA
  2. 2.Department of BiologyIndiana State UniversityTerre HauteUSA
  3. 3.Moffitt Cancer CenterTampaUSA

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