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A persistence enhancing propensity account of ecological function to explain ecosystem evolution


We argue that ecology in general and biodiversity and ecosystem function (BEF) research in particular need an understanding of functions which is both ahistorical and evolutionarily grounded. A natural candidate in this context is Bigelow and Pargetter’s (1987) evolutionary forward-looking account which, like the causal role account, assigns functions to parts of integrated systems regardless of their past history, but supplements this with an evolutionary dimension that relates functions to their bearers’ ability to thrive and perpetuate themselves. While Bigelow and Pargetter’s account focused on functional organization at the level of organisms, we argue that such an account can be extended to functional organization at the community and ecosystem levels in a way that broadens the scope of the reconciliation between ecosystem ecology and evolutionary biology envisioned by many BEF researchers (e.g. Holt 1995; Loreau 2010a). By linking an evolutionary forward-looking account of functions to the persistence-based understanding of evolution defended by Bouchard (2008, 2011) and others (e.g. Bourrat 2014; Doolittle 2014), and to the theoretical research on complex adaptive systems (Levin 1999, 2005; Norberg 2004), we argue that ecosystems, by forming more or less resilient assemblages, can evolve even while they do not reproduce and form lineages. We thus propose a Persistence Enhancing Propensity (PEP) account of role functions in ecology to account for this overlap of evolutionary and ecological processes.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    See Cummins (1975, p. 753) for his initial formulation of the CR theory.

  2. 2.

    As an anonymous referee recalled, Davies ’s (2001, Chap. 4) discussion does significant work at easing the worry of excessive liberality attached to the CR account, by restricting its application to hierarchically-organized systems. Despite this, however, Davies’s reinterpretation of the CR theory would, it seems, still admit the functional ascriptions, criticized in the above paragraph, to ecological items relative to ecosystem fragilization or collapse. This, at least, is suggested by Davies’s willingness to assign to the “unwieldy tusk of the narwhal whale” the function of reducing the animal’s mobility, despite the presumable fact that such reduced mobility is detrimental to its survival (Davies takes this example from Matthen 1988). Hence, Davies’s revised CR account remains more liberal than would seem to be allowed by ecologists’ focus on stability and resilience.

  3. 3.

    Note, for precision, that on this account of fitness, the mere existence of something, although it is the consequence of past propensity to persist, should not be conflated with a present propensity to persist in the future.

  4. 4.

    In an earlier paper, Holling (1973) simply uses stability to denote engineering resilience and resilience simpliciter to refer to ecological resilience. Other theorists denote the same distinction through a different terminology, e.g. Loreau (2010b, p. 126; see also Loreau et al. 2002, p. 81) and Pimm (1991, pp. 13–14), use “resilience” for what Holling calls engineering resilience and use respectively “robustness” and “persistence” for what he calls ecological resilience. In line with an anonymous reviewer’s remark, we must point out that the difference between engineering and ecological resilience may be ultimately a matter of time-scale (see, for instance, Beisner et al. (2003, p. 378) for remarks along these lines).

  5. 5.

    Blandin (2007, pp. 44–46) himself acknowledges, that his and Lamotte’s account rests on a notion of the general trajectory of ecosystems as moving from “Gleasonian” situations where interacting species contingently happen to be compatible but have not yet co-evolved, to “Darwinian” situations where co-evolution has reinforced their interdependence.

  6. 6.

    An alternative way of doing this, as Godfrey-Smith (2009) suggests, is to see a broad spectrum of individuality where some are in some sense fully-fledged individuals (e.g. some Metazoans) while other individuals are much less fixed and much less formed (e.g. microbial colony) with all the rest of the spectrum occupied by individuals with different degrees of individuality. While there is appeal to this view, we aren’t sure that this shading-off view will be sufficient to account for the complexity and pervasiveness of symbiotic interactions in the biological world.

  7. 7.

    See Barker (2008) for an extended discussion of the notion of co-optation as it pertains to extended adaptationist research programs, and of the related concept of “biological lever” which she coins to denote cases where an organism co-opts another one by interfering with its regulatory processes. Although space does not allow us to develop on this here, the process of biological leverage should, we think, undoubtedly play a key role in an understanding of ecosystem evolution like ours.

  8. 8.

    Sterelny (2005, pp. 323–327) characterizes the compensation effect as an emergent top-down effect. We do not here take a stand on emergence and top-down causation in ecology, but see Mikkelson (2004) for an insightful discussion.

  9. 9.

    The epistemic difficulty identified here is similar to that identified by Amundson and Lauder ’s (1994) objection to the SE theory of functions, on the grounds of the epistemic difficulty of knowing sufficiently the evolutionary history of a trait to know exactly what its selected effects are.

  10. 10.

    We are thankful to an anonymous referee for noticing this.


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Dussault, A.C., Bouchard, F. A persistence enhancing propensity account of ecological function to explain ecosystem evolution. Synthese 194, 1115–1145 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-016-1065-5

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  • Philosophy of ecology
  • Ecological function
  • Biodiversity and ecosystem function
  • Complex adaptive systems
  • Ecosystem evolution
  • Reticulate evolution