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Dialectics and reductionism in ecology


Biology above the level of the individual organism — population ecology and genetics, community ecology, biogeography and evolution — requires the study of intrinsically complex systems. But the dominant philosophies of western science have proven to be inadequate for the study of complexity:

  1. (1)

    The reductionist myth of simplicity leads its advocates to isolate parts as completely as possible and study these parts. It underestimates the importance of interactions in theory, and its recommendations for practice (in agricultural programs or conservation and environmental protection) are typically thwarted by the power of indirect and unanticipated causes rather than by error in the detailed description of their own objects of study.

  2. (2)

    Reductionism ignores properties of complex wholes; the effects of these properties are therefore seen only as noise; this randomness is elevated into an ontological principle which leads to the blocking of investigation and the reification of statistics, so that data reduction and statistical prediction often pass for explanation.

  3. (3)

    The faith in the atomistic nature of the world makes the allocation of relative weights to separate causes the main object of science, and makes it more difficult to study the nature of interconnectedness.

Where simple behaviors emerge out of complex interactions, it takes that simplicity to deny the complexity; where the behavior is bewilderingly complex it reifies its own confusion into a denial of regularity.

Both the internal theoretical needs of ecology and the social demands that it inform our planned interactions with nature require an ecology that makes the understanding of complexity the central problem: it must cope with interdependence and relative autonomy, with similarity and difference, with the general and the particular, with chance and necessity, with equilbrium and change, with continuity and discontinuity, with contradictory processes. It must become increasingly self-conscious of its own philosophy, and that philosophy will be effective to the extent that it becomes not only materialist, but dialectical.

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Levins, R., Lewontin, R. Dialectics and reductionism in ecology. Synthese 43, 47–78 (1980).

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  • Complex System
  • Environmental Protection
  • Complex Interaction
  • Relative Weight
  • Data Reduction