On the Definition of Ecology

Abstract

In this article I discuss the proposition that ecologists may place restrictions on the kinds of plants and animals and on the kinds of systems they consider relevant to assessing the resiliency of ecological generalizations. I argue that to restrict the extension of ecological science and its concepts in order to exclude cultivated plants, captive animals, and domesticated environments ecologists must appeal either (1) to the boundaries of their discipline; (2) to the idea that the effects of human activity are rare and unusual enough to count as ceteris paribus conditions; or (3) to the nature/culture divide. The boundaries of their discipline, however, are practical, not epistemological. The effects of human activity are ubiquitous and profound. And the nature/culture divide, as far as I know, has been infra dignitatem in the natural sciences at least since Charles Darwin and John Stuart Mill. Ecologists may reason, moreover, that organisms and systems that have the kind of history that interests them must as a result possess a kind of organization or some other general biological property that distinguishes them from those that do not. This is to commit a genetic fallacy.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  1. Alberti M, Marzluff JM, Shulenberger E et al (2003) Integrating humans into ecology: opportunities and challenges for studying urban ecosystems. Bioscience 53(12):1169–1179

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. American Fisheries Society (2016) Researchers play matchmaker to save fish population. https://fisheries.org/2016/01/researchers-play-matchmaker-to-save-fish-population/. Accessed 15 Mar 2017

  3. Andrewartha HG (1961) Introduction to the study of animal populations. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  4. Angner E (2015) To navigate safely in the vast sea of empirical facts. Synthese 192(11):3557–3575

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Bamford M, Calver M (2014) A precise definition of habitat is needed for effective conservation and communication. Aust Zool 37(2):245–247

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Barringer F (2014) Swim to sea? These salmon are catching a lift. New York Times, April 18

  7. Begon M, Townsend CR, Harper JL (2006) Ecology: from individuals to ecosystems. 4th edn. Blackwell Publishing, Malden

    Google Scholar 

  8. Bellemain E, Ricklefs RE (2008) Are islands the end of the colonization road? Trends Ecol Evol 23(8):461–468

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Berkes F, Colding J, Folke C (eds) (2008) Navigating social-ecological systems: building resilience for complexity and change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  10. Binder CR, Hinkel J, Bots PWG, Pahl-Wostl C (2013) Comparison of frameworks for analyzing social-ecological systems. Ecol Soc 18(4):26. 10.5751/ES-05551-180426

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Bradley B (1998) Two ways to talk about change: ‘The child’ of the sublime versus radical pedagogy. In: Bayer BM, Shotter J (eds) Reconstructing the psychological subject: bodies, practices and technologies. Sage Publications, London, pp 68–93

    Google Scholar 

  12. Brown JH, Sax DF (2004) An essay on some topics concerning invasive species. Austral Ecol 29(5):530–536

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Campbell NA, Reece JB, Taylor MR, Simon EJ, Dickey JL (2009) Biology: concepts and connections, 6th edn. Pearson/Benjamin Cummings, New York

  14. Courchamp F, Dunne JA, Le Maho Y, May RM, Thébaud C, Hochberg ME (2015) Fundamental ecology is fundamental. Trends Ecol Evol 30(1):9–16

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Crawley MJ, Harral JE (2001) Scale dependence in plant biodiversity. Science 291:864–868

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Darwin C (1838–39) Notebook. http://darwin-online.org.uk/converted/published/1960_Notebooks_F1574d.html. Accessed 15 Mar 2017

  17. Daston L (1995) How nature became the other: anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism in early modern natural philosophy. In Biology as society, society as biology: metaphors, pp. 37–56. Springer, Netherlands

    Google Scholar 

  18. Davis MA (2009) Invasion biology. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  19. Didham RK, Tylianakis JM, Gemmell NJ, Rand TA, Ewers RM (2007) Interactive effects of habitat modification and species invasion on native species decline. Trends Ecol Evol 22(9):489–496

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Dodson SI et al (1998) Ecology. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  21. Ehrlich PR, Ehrlich AH (2013) Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?. In Proceedings of the Royal Society B, vol 280, No. 1754, p. 20122845. The Royal Society, London

    Google Scholar 

  22. Ehrlich PR, Roughgarden J (1987) The science of ecology. Macmillan, New York

    Google Scholar 

  23. Ellis EC (2015) Ecology in an anthropogenic biosphere. Ecol Monogr 85(3):287–331

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Ellis EC, Klein Goldewijk K, Siebert S et al (2010) Anthropogenic transformation of the biomes, 1700 to 2000. Global Ecol Biogeogr 19(5):589–606

    Google Scholar 

  25. Ellis EC, Kaplan JO, Fuller DQ et al (2013) Used planet: a global history. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 110(20):7978–7985

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Elton C (1966) The pattern of animal communities. Methuen, London

    Google Scholar 

  27. ESA (2016) About. Ecological society of America. ESA.org. http://www.esa.org/esa/about. Accessed 26 Oct 2016

  28. Estrada A, Morales-Castilla I, Caplat P, Early R (2016) Usefulness of species traits in predicting range shifts. Trends in ecology evolution 31(3):190–203

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Falk-Petersen J, Bøhn T, Sandlund OT (2006) On the numerous concepts in invasion biology. Biol Invasions 8(6):1409–1424

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Fauth JE, Bernardo J, Camara M et al (1996) Simplifying the jargon of community ecology: a conceptual approach. Am Nat 147(2):282–286

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Flagg TA (2015) Balancing conservation and harvest objectives: a review of considerations for the management of salmon hatcheries in the US Pacific Northwest. North Am J Aquac 77(3):367–376

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) (2014) Global aquaculture production. http://www.fao.org/fishery/collection/global-aquaculture-production/en

  33. Foucault M (1986) The care of the self: the history of sexuality, vol 3. Pantheon Books, New York

    Google Scholar 

  34. Graedel TE (1996) On the concept of industrial ecology. Annu Rev Energy Env 21(1):69–98

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Gray A (1963) [1860] The origin of species by means of natural selection. In: Dupree AH (ed) Darwiniana. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  36. Haberl H, Wackernagel M, Wrbka T (2004) Land use and sustainability indicators. An introduction. Land Use Policy 21(3):193–198

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Haila Y (2000) Beyond the nature-culture dualism. Biol Philos 15(2):155–175

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Hanski I, Gyllenberg M (1997) Uniting two general patterns in the distribution of species. Science 275:397–400

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Harmon LJ, Harrison S (2015) Species diversity is dynamic and unbounded at local and continental scales. Am Nat 185(5):584–593

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Helmus MR, Mahler DL, Losos JB (2014) Island biogeography of the Anthropocene. Nature 513(7519):543–546

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Hubbell SB (2001) The unified neutral theory of biodiversity and biogeography. Princeton University Press, Princeton

    Google Scholar 

  42. Inkpen SA (2016) Like Hercules and the Hydra: trade-offs and strategies in ecological model-building and experimental design. Stud Hist Philos Sci Part C 57:34–43

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Inkpen SA (2017) Are humans disturbing conditions in ecology? Biol Philos 32(1):51–71

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Jarvie IC (1975) Epistle to the anthropologists. Am Anthropol 77(2):253–266

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Jax K (2006) Ecological units: definitions and application. Q Rev Biol 81(3):237–258

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Jelinski LW, Graedel TE, Laudise RA et al (1992) Industrial ecology: concepts and approaches. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 89(3):793–797

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Keller EF (2005) Ecosystems, organisms, and machines. Bioscience 55(12):1069–1074

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Knox B, Ladiges P, Evans B, Saint R (2010) Biology: an Australian focus. McGraw-Hill, North Ryde

  49. Krebs CJ (1972) Ecology. Harper & Row, New York

    Google Scholar 

  50. Krebs CJ (2001) Ecology. Benjamin Cummings, an imprint of Addison Wesley Longman, Inc, Menlo Park

  51. Lange M (2002) Who’s afraid of ceteris-paribus laws? Or: how I learned to stop worrying and love them. Erkenntnis 57:407–423

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Lange M (2005) Ecological laws: what would they be and why would they matter? Oikos 110:394–403

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Levin SA (1992) The problem of pattern and scale in ecology. Ecology 73:1943–1967

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Levin SA (1998) Ecosystems and the biosphere as complex adaptive systems. Ecosystems 1(5):431–436

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Levin SA (1999) Towards a science of ecological management. Conserv Ecol 3(2):6. http://www.consecol.org/vol3/iss2/art6/

  56. Levin PS, Williams JG (2002) Interspecific effects of artifically propagated fish: an additional conservation risk for salmon. Conserv Biol 16(6):1581–1587

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Linquist S, Gregory TR, Elliott TA et al (2016) Yes! There are resilient generalizations (or “laws”) in ecology. Q Rev Biol 91(2):119–131

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Litrico I, Violle C (2015) Diversity in plant breeding: a new conceptual framework. Trends Plant Sci 20(10):604–613

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. MacArthur RH, Wilson EO (1967) The theory of island biogeography. Princeton University Press, Princeton

    Google Scholar 

  60. Macdonald IA, Loope LL, Usher MB, Hamann O (1989) Wildlife conservation and the invasion of nature reserves by introduced species: a global perspective. In: Biological invasions: a global perspective. Wiley, New York, pp 215–255

    Google Scholar 

  61. Mader SS (2004) Biology. 8th edn. McGraw-Hill, North Ryde

  62. Magnusson WE (2013) The words “population” and “community” have outlived their usefulness in ecological publications. Natureza e Conservação 11(1):1–8. doi:10.4322/natcon.2013.007

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Malinowski B (1945) In: Kaberry PM (ed) The dynamics of cultural change: an inquiry into race relations in Africa. Yale University Press, New Haven

    Google Scholar 

  64. McNaughton SJ, Wolf LL (1973) General ecology. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York

    Google Scholar 

  65. Mill JS (1875) Nature, the utility of religion, and theism. Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, London. Mill’s “Essay on Nature” is available at https://archive.org/details/a592828200milluoft

  66. Milla R, Osborne CP, Turcotte MM, Violle C (2015) Plant domestication through an ecological lens. Trends Ecol Evol 30(8):463–469

    Article  Google Scholar 

  67. Mitchell SC (2005) How useful is the concept of habitat?–a critique. Oikos 110(3):634–638

    Article  Google Scholar 

  68. O’Neill RV (2001) Is it time to bury the ecosystem concept (with full military honors, of course!). Ecology 82(12):3275–3284

    Google Scholar 

  69. Odum EP (1969) The strategy of ecosystem development. Science 164(3877):262–270

    Article  Google Scholar 

  70. Odum EP (1971) Fundamentals of ecology, 3rd edn. WB Saunders Company, Philadelphia

    Google Scholar 

  71. Oster S (2010) China’s tiger farms spark a standoff. Wall Street J. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703455804575057101418533006.html

  72. Pounds JA, Puschendorf R (2004) Ecology: clouded futures. Nature 427:107–109

    Article  Google Scholar 

  73. Pyšek P, Richardson DM, Pergl J, Jarošík V, Sixtová Z, Weber E (2008) Geographical and taxonomic biases in invasion ecology. Trends Ecol Evol 23(5):237–244

    Article  Google Scholar 

  74. Reichard SH, Hamilton CW (1997) Predicting invasions of woody plants introduced into North America. Conserv Biol 11(1):193–203

    Article  Google Scholar 

  75. Reichard SH, White P (2001) Horticulture as a pathway of invasive plant introductions in the United States most invasive plants have been introduced for horticultural use by nurseries, botanical gardens, and individuals. Bioscience 51(2):103–113

    Article  Google Scholar 

  76. Ricciardi A (2014) Biological invasions simply explained. Bioscience 64(2):154–155

    Article  Google Scholar 

  77. Richardson DM, Ricciardi A (2013) Misleading criticisms of invasion science: a field guide. Divers Distrib 19(12):1461–1467

    Article  Google Scholar 

  78. Richardson DM, Pyšek P, Rejmánek M et al (2000) Naturalization and invasion of alien plants: concepts and definitions. Diver Distrib 6(2):93–107

    Article  Google Scholar 

  79. Robinson TP, Wint GW, Conchedda G et al (2014) Mapping the global distribution of Livestock. PLoS One 9(5):e96084

    Article  Google Scholar 

  80. Rosenzweig M (1999) Heeding the warning in biodiversity’s basic law. Science 284(5412):276–277

    Article  Google Scholar 

  81. Sagoff M (2016) Are there general causal forces in ecology? Synthese 193:3003–3024

    Article  Google Scholar 

  82. Scheiner SM, Willig MR (2008) A general theory of ecology. Theor Ecol 1(1):21–28

    Article  Google Scholar 

  83. Schoener TW (1986) Mechanistic approaches to community ecology: a new reductionism. Am Zool 26(1):81–106

    Article  Google Scholar 

  84. Secord JA (1981) Nature’s fancy: Charles Darwin and the breeding of pigeons. Isis 72:163–186

    Article  Google Scholar 

  85. Shelford MB (1913) The decline of primeval communities at the head of Lake Michigan. In: Shelford VE (ed) Animal communities in temperate America. University of Chicago, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  86. Simberloff D (2010) Invasions of plant communities–more of the same, something very different, or both? Am Midl Nat 163(1):220–233

    Article  Google Scholar 

  87. Simberloff D, Souza L, Nuñez MA, Barrios-Garcia MN, Bunn W (2012) The natives are restless, but not often and mostly when disturbed. Ecology 93(3):598–607

    Article  Google Scholar 

  88. Simberloff D, Martin JL, Genovesi P et al (2013) Impacts of biological invasions: what’s what and the way forward. Trends Ecol Evol 28(1):58–66

    Article  Google Scholar 

  89. Smil V (1991) General energetics: energy in the biosphere and civilization. Wiley, New York

    Google Scholar 

  90. Stiling P (1992) Ecology. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River

    Google Scholar 

  91. Stohlgren, T.J., Barnett, D.T. and Kartesz, J.T., 2003. The rich get richer: patterns of plant invasions in the United States. Front Ecol Environ 1(1):11–14

    Article  Google Scholar 

  92. Thomas CD (2015) Rapid acceleration of plant speciation during the Anthropocene. Trends Ecol Evol 30(8):448–455

    Article  Google Scholar 

  93. Thomas CD, Palmer G (2015) Non-native plants add to the British flora without negative consequences for native diversity. Proc Natl Acad Sci 112(14):4387–4392

    Article  Google Scholar 

  94. Thompson K (2014) Where do camels belong? The story and science of invasive species. Profile Books, London

    Google Scholar 

  95. Valéry L, Fritz H, Lefeuvre JC (2013) Another call for the end of invasion biology. Oikos 122(8):1143–1146

    Article  Google Scholar 

  96. Vellend M (2014) The value of biodiversity: a humbling analysis. Trends Ecol Evol 29:138–139

    Article  Google Scholar 

  97. Villee CA (1972) Biology. WB Saunders Compamy, Philadelphia

    Google Scholar 

  98. Voget FW (1975) A history of ethnology. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York

    Google Scholar 

  99. Wagner MR, Block WM, Geils BW, Wenger KF (2000) Restoration ecology. J For 98(10):22–27

    Google Scholar 

  100. Walker BH, Gunderson LH, Kinzig AP et al (2006) A handful of heuristics and some propositions for understanding resilience in social-ecological systems. Ecol Soc 11(1):13. http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol11/iss1/art13/

  101. Weber M (1949) [1904] Objectivity in social science and social policy. In: Shilsand EA, Finch HA (eds) The methodology of the social sciences. Free Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  102. Whittaker RH, Levin SA, Root RB (1973) Niche, habitat, and ecotope. Am Nat 107(955):321–338

    Article  Google Scholar 

  103. World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) (2008) Eating our future: the environmental impact of industrial animal agriculture. http://www.fao.org/ag/againfo/themes/animal-welfare/news-detail/en/c/12203/. Accessed 15 Mar 2017

  104. World Wildlife Fund (2014) More tigers in American backyards than in the wild. https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/more-tigers-in-american-backyards-than-in-the-wild. Accessed 15 Mar 2017

Download references

Acknowledgements

I thank Andrew Inkpen for many helpful suggestions.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mark Sagoff.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Sagoff, M. On the Definition of Ecology. Biol Theory 12, 85–98 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13752-017-0263-9

Download citation

Keywords

  • Definition of ecology
  • Ecological generalizations
  • Genetic fallacy
  • Habitat
  • Invasive species
  • Philosophy of ecology