Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 24, Issue 4, pp 521–529 | Cite as

Is there a general theory of community ecology?

  • Joan Roughgarden


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.


Community ecology Theoretical ecology Supply-side ecology Earth-systems science Organic earth science Conservation Ecological health Philosophy of biology Philosophy of ecology Philosophy of science General theory 


  1. Board of Life Sciences (2008) The Role of Theory in Advancing twenty-first Century Biology: Catalyzing Transformative Research. (Report of the Committee on Defining and Advancing the Conceptual Basis of Biological Sciences in the twenty-first Century.) National Research Council of the National Academies, The National Academies Press, pp 208Google Scholar
  2. Brown J (1975) Geographical ecology of desert rodents. In: Cody M, Diamond J (eds) Ecology and evolution of communities. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp 315–341Google Scholar
  3. Brown JH, Gillooly JF, Allen AP, Savage VM, West GB (2004) Toward a metabolic theory of ecology. Ecology 85:1771–1789. doi: 10.1890/03-9000 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Carpenter S, Kitchell J, Hodgson J (1985) Cascading trophic interactions and lake productivity. Bioscience 35:634–639. doi: 10.2307/1309989 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Clements FE (1916) Nature and structure of the climax. J Ecol 24:252–284. doi: 10.2307/2256278 Google Scholar
  6. Cohen J (1978) Food webs and niche space. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  7. Connolly S, Menge BA, Roughgarden J (2001) A latitudinal gradient in recruitment of intertidal invertebrates in the Northeast Pacific Ocean. Ecology 82:1799–1813CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Diamond J (1973) Distributional ecology of New Guinea birds. Science 179:759–769CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Gaines S, Roughgarden J (1985) Larval settlement rate: a leading determinant of structure in an ecological community of the marine intertidal zone. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 82:3707–3711CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Gleason HA (1926) The individualistic concept of the plant association. Bull Torrey Bot Club 53:1–20. doi: 10.2307/2479932 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Harte J, Kinzig A, Green J (1999) Self-similarity in the abundance and distribution of species. Science 284:334–336. doi: 10.1126/science.284.5412.334 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Hubbell S (2001) The unified neutral theory of biodiversity and biogeography. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  13. Hutchinson GE (1959) Homage to Santa Rosalia, or why are there so many kinds of animals? Am Nat 93:145–159. doi: 10.1086/282070 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Lawton J (1999) Are there general laws in ecology? Oikos 84:177–192CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. MacArthur RH (1984) Geographical ecology, 2nd edn. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  16. MacArthur RH, Connell JH (1967) The biology of populations. John Wiley, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  17. MacArthur RH, Levins R (1967) The limiting similarity, convergence, and divergence of coexisting species. Am Nat 101:377–385. doi: 10.1086/282505 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. MacArthur RH, Wilson EO (1963) An equilibrium theory of insular zoogeography. Evol Int J Org Evol 17:373–387. doi: 10.2307/2407089 Google Scholar
  19. May R (1973) Stability and complexity in model ecosystems. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  20. Odum E (1969) The strategy of ecosystem development. Science 164:262–270. doi: 10.1126/science.164.3877.262 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Pacala S, Roughgarden J (1985) Population experiments with the Anolis lizards of St. Maarten and St. Eustatius. Ecology 66:128–141CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Pacala S, Silander J (1985) Neighborhood models of plant population dynamics. I. Single-species models of annuals. Am Nat 125:385–411. doi: 10.1086/284349 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Preston F (1962) The canonical distribution of commonness and rarity. Ecology 43(185–215):410–432. doi: 10.2307/1931976 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Rosenfeld L, Anderson T, Hatcher G,et al. (1995) Upwelling fronts and barnacle recruitment in central California. Technical Report 95–19, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Moss Landing, CAGoogle Scholar
  25. Roughgarden J (1972) Evolution of niche width. Amer Natur 106:683–718CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Roughgarden J (1976) Resource partitioning among competing species: a coevolutionary approach. Theor Popul Biol 9:388–424. doi: 10.1016/0040-5809(76)90054-X CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Roughgarden J (1990) Origin of the Eastern Caribbean: Data from reptiles and amphibians. In: Larue DK and Draper G (eds) Trans. 12th Caribbean Geological Conference, St. Croix, USVI, Miami Geological Survey, pp 10–26Google Scholar
  28. Roughgarden J (1995) Anolis Lizards of the Caribbean: ecology, evolution, and plate tectonics. Oxford University Press, Oxford, p 200Google Scholar
  29. Roughgarden J (1998) Production functions from ecological populations: a survey with emphasis on spatially explicit models. In: Tilman D, Kareiva P (eds) Spatial ecology: the role of space in population dynamics and interspecific interactions. Princeton University Press, Princeton, pp 296–317Google Scholar
  30. Roughgarden J (2007) Challenging Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. Daedalus 136(2):1–14. doi: 10.1162/daed.2007.136.2.23 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Roughgarden J (2009) The genial gene: deconstructing Darwinian selfishness. University of California Press, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
  32. Roughgarden J, Iwasa Y (1986) Dynamics of a metapopulation with space-limited subpopulations. Theor Popul Biol 29:235–261. doi: 10.1016/0040-5809(86)90010-9 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Roughgarden J, Iwasa Y, Baxter C (1985) Demographic theory for an open marine population with space-limited recruitment. Ecology 66:54–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Roughgarden J, Gaines S, Pacala S (1987) Supply side ecology: The role of physical transport processes. In: Gee JHR and Giller PS (eds) Organization of Communities, Past and Present, The 27th Symposium of the the British Ecological Society, Blackwell Scientific Publications, pp 491–518Google Scholar
  35. Roughgarden J, Gaines S, Possingham H (1988) Recruitment dynamics in complex life cycles. Science 241:1460–1466CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Roughgarden J, Pennington J, Stoner D, Alexander S, Miller K (1991) Collisions of upwelling fronts with the intertidal zone: the cause of recruitment pulses in barnacle populations of central California. Acta Oecologica 12:35–51Google Scholar
  37. Schoener T (1982) The controversy over interspecific competition. Amer Sci 70:586–595Google Scholar
  38. Schoener T (1984) Strong. In: Simberloff DRD, Abele LG, Thistle AB (eds) Ecological communities: conceptual issues and the evidence. Princeton University Press, Princeton, pp 254–281Google Scholar
  39. Shkedy Y, Roughgarden J (1997) Barnacle recruitment and population dynamics predicted from coastal upwelling. Oikos 80(3):487–498CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Simberloff D (2004) Community ecology: is it time to move on? Am Nat 163:787–799CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Smale S (1976) On the differential equations of species in competition. J Math Biol 3:5–7. doi: 10.1007/BF00307854 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Tilman D (1982) Resource competition and community structure. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  43. Woodward J (2001) Law and explanation in biology: invariance is the kind of stability that matters. Philos Sci 68:1–20. doi: 10.1086/392863 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Woodward J (2002) There is no such thing as a ceteris paribus law. Erkenntnis 57:303–328CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Woodward J (2003) Making things happen: a theory of causal explanation. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesStanford UniversityStanfordUSA

Personalised recommendations