Theoretical Ecology

, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp 21–28 | Cite as

A general theory of ecology

  • Samuel M. ScheinerEmail author
  • Michael R. Willig
Original Paper


Ecologists bemoan the dearth of theory in ecology, in particular, the lack of an overarching, general theory. These complaints largely are unjustified. The components of a general theory of ecology have existed for the past half century; ecologists simply have failed to explicitly recognize them. We present a general theory of ecology and show how it relates to ecology’s numerous constituent theories and models. The general theory consists of a description of the domain of ecology and a set of fundamental principles. The domain of ecology is the spatial and temporal patterns of the distribution and abundance of organisms, including causes and consequences. Fundamental principles are broad statements about the patterns that exist and the processes that operate within a domain. The seven fundamental principles of the theory of ecology are: the heterogeneous distribution of organisms, interactions of organisms, contingency, environmental heterogeneity, finite and heterogeneous resources, the mortality of organisms, and the evolutionary cause of ecological properties. These principles are the necessary and sufficient elements for a general theory of ecology. The propositions of any constituent theory of ecology can be shown to be a consequence of these fundamental principles along with principles from other science domains. The general theory establishes relationships among constituent theories through shared fundamental principles. The next challenge is to develop and integrate unified, constituent theories and to establish the relationships among them within the framework established by the general theory.


Conceptual framework law model theory 



For insightful comments, we thank Jim Collins, Gordon Fox, Jim Grace, Bob Holt, Jane Maienschein, Alan Tessier, Bill Zamer, and several anonymous reviewers. This manuscript is based on work done by both authors while serving at the National Science Foundation. The views expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect those of the National Science Foundation or the United States Government. Partial support to MRW was provided by the Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the University of Connecticut.


  1. Begon M, Townsend CR, Harper JL (2006) Ecology, 4th edn. Blackwell, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  2. Brown JH, Gillooly JE, Allen AP, Savage VM, West GB (2004) Toward a metabolic theory of ecology. Ecology 85:1771–1789CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Chase JM, Leibold MA (2003) Ecological Niches: Linking Classical and Contemporary Approaches. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  4. Clements FE (1916) Plant Succession. Carnegie Institute of Washington, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  5. Colinvaux P (1986) Ecology. Wiley, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  6. Collins JP (1986) Evolutionary ecology and the use of natural selection in ecological theory. J Hist Biol 19:257–288PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Darwin CR (1859) On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Murray, LondonGoogle Scholar
  8. Dodson SI et al. (1998) Ecology. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UKGoogle Scholar
  9. Ehrlich PR, Roughgarden J (1987) The Science of Ecology. Macmillan, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  10. Forster JR (1778) Observations made during a voyage round the world, on physical geography, natural history, and ethnic philosophy. G. Robinson, LondonGoogle Scholar
  11. Giere RN (1988) Explaining Science: A Cognitive Approach. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  12. Gleason HA (1917) The structure and development of the plant association. Bull Torrey Bot Club 43:463–481CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Gleason HA (1926) The individualistic concept of the plant association. Bull Torrey Bot Club 53:7–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Gurevitch J, Scheiner SM, Fox GA (2006) The Ecology of Plants, 2nd edn. Sinauer, Sunderland, MAGoogle Scholar
  15. Hanski I (1999) Metapopulation Ecology. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  16. Hempel CG (1965) Aspects of Scientific Explanation. The Free, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  17. Ives AR, Agrawal AA (2005) Empirically motivated ecological theory. Ecology 86:3137–3138CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Krebs CJ (2001) Ecology. Benjamin Cummings, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  19. Kutschera U, Niklas KJ (2004) The modern theory of biological evolution: an expanded synthesis. Naturwissenschaften 91:255–276PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Lawton JH (1999) Are there general laws in ecology? Oikos 84:177–192CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Leibold MA et al. (2004) The metacommunity concept: a framework for multiscale community ecology. Ecol Lett 7:601–613CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Levins R (1968) Evolution in Changing Environments. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJGoogle Scholar
  23. MacArthur RH, Wilson EO (1967) The Theory of Island Biogeography. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJGoogle Scholar
  24. Mayr E (1982) The Growth of Biological Thought. Belknap, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  25. McIntosh RP (1985) The Background of Ecology. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  26. McNaughton SJ, Wolf LL (1973) General Ecology. Holt, Rinehart and Wilson, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  27. Miller RW (1987) Fact and Method. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJGoogle Scholar
  28. Mitman G (1992) The State of Nature. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  29. Odum EP (1971) Fundamentals of Ecology. Saunders, PhiladelphiaGoogle Scholar
  30. Pickett STA, Collins SL, Armesto JJ (1987) Models, mechanisms and pathways of succession. Bot Rev 53:335–371CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Pickett STA, Kolasa J, Jones CG (1994) Ecological Understanding. Academic, San DiegoGoogle Scholar
  32. Pimm SL (1982) Food Webs. Chapman and Hall, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  33. Ricklefs RE (1979) Ecology. Chiron, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  34. Scheiner SM, Rey-Benayas JM (1994) Global patterns of plant diversity. Evol Ecol 8:331–347CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Scheiner SM, Willig MR (2005) Developing unified theories in ecology as exemplified with diversity gradients. Am Nat 166:458–469PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Simberloff D (2004) Community ecology: is it time to move on? Am Nat 163:787–799PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Stephens DW, Krebs JR (1986) Foraging Theory. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJGoogle Scholar
  38. Stiling P (1992) Ecology. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJGoogle Scholar
  39. Suppe F (1977) The Structure of Scientific Theories. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, ILGoogle Scholar
  40. Turchin P (2001) Does population ecology have general laws? Oikos 94:17–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. von Humboldt A (1808) Ansichten der Natur mit wissenschaftlichen Erlauterungen. J. G. Cotta, Tübingen, GermanyGoogle Scholar
  42. Whewell W (1858) Novum Organon Renovatum, LondonGoogle Scholar
  43. Willig MR, Kaufman DM, Stevens RD (2003) Latitudinal gradients of biodiversity: pattern, process, scale, and synthesis. Annu Rev Ecol, Evol, and Syst 34:273–309CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science & Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Division of Environmental BiologyNational Science FoundationArlingtonUSA
  2. 2.Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering and Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of ConnecticutStorrsUSA

Personalised recommendations