The world contains many different types of ecosystems. This is something of a commonplace in biology and conservation science. But there has been little attention to the question of whether such ecosystem types enjoy a degree of objectivity—whether they might be natural kinds. I argue that traditional accounts of natural kinds that emphasize nomic or causal–mechanistic dimensions of “kindhood” are ill-equipped to accommodate presumptive ecosystemic kinds. In particular, unlike many other kinds, ecosystemic kinds are “anchored” to the contingent character of species and higher taxa and their abiotic environments. Drawing on Slater (Br J Philos Sci 66(2):375–411, 2015a), I show how we can nevertheless make room for such contingent anchoring in an account of natural kinds of ecosystems kinds.
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I will not have much to say about the first question for want of space and because it seems to me that the questions are perpendicular to each other, addressing very different theoretical desiderata; for more discussion, see Sect. 2 below.
More precisely: it is often hypothesized that requisite levels of non-contingency for natural kinds are only secured by appropriate causal relations or connections to natural laws.
It is not quite as clear that the reverse possibility holds. Can there be types of ecosystems without particular ecosystems, a forest with no trees? I happen to think that the answer to this question is ‘yes’, though I won’t defend this line in any detail here; instead, I will simply presume that there are particular ecosystems (in whatever sense is workable) in asking whether there are also ecosystemic types.
For other articulations and elaborations of the HPC view, see Kornblith (1993), Griffiths (1997, 1999), Wilson (1999, 2005), Wilson et al. 2007, Slater (2015a). More epistemically-oriented accounts of natural kinds likewise opt to forge conceptual connections with causal rather than nomic concepts (Magnus 2012; Khalidi 2013). My attention here will be on Boyd’s view as (loosely) representative of the general strategy; for brief discussion of Magnus and Khalidi, see Slater (2013b, 2015b).
For more detail about and defense of these claims, see Slater (2015a). In that paper, I make the suggestion (omitted here for brevity’s sake) that rather than attempting to think of natural kinds as an ontological category to be univocally characterized (as in Lowe 2006; Bird 2007, 2011), we should see “natural kindness” as a sort of status that different categories can enjoy in view of their stability and hence aptness for inference/explanation. This is presumably not a view that Lange would go in for, for as we’ve seen, Lange takes a particularly strong view of the relationship between laws and natural kinds; kinds must be, in a sense, governed by meta-laws.
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Thanks to audiences at the IHPST workshop on “Causation and Metaphysics” organized by Andrew McFarland (particularly Andrew, P.D. Magnus, Thomas Reydon) and at POBAM2014 (particularly Matt Barker, Matt Haber, Roberta Millstein, Elliott Sober, and Joel Velasco) for helpful suggestions. Thanks also to two anonymous referees for Synthese for constructive criticism and Jay Odenbaugh and Jeff Trop for sound advice on earlier drafts.
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Slater, M.H. Anchoring in ecosystemic kinds. Synthese 195, 1487–1508 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-016-1302-y
- Natural kinds
- HPC kinds
- SPC kinds