Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 18, Issue 4, pp 529–552 | Cite as

The plaza and the pendulum: two concepts of ecological science

  • Mark Sagoff


This essay explores two strategies of inquiryin ecological science. Ecologists may regardthe sites they study either as contingentcollections of plants and animals, therelations of which are place-specific andidiosyncratic, or as structured systems andcommunites that are governed by general rules,forces, or principles. Ecologists who take thefirst approach rely on observation, induction,and experiment – a case-study or historicalmethod – to determine the causes of particularevents. Ecologists who take the secondapproach, seeking to explain by inferringevents from general patterns or principles,confront four conceptual obstacles which thisessay describes. Theory in ecology must (1)define and classify the object it studies,e.g., the ecosystem, and thus determine theconditions under which it remains the ``same''system through time and change. Ecologistsmust (2) find ways to reject as well as tocreate mathematical models of the ecosystem,possibly by (3) identifying efficient causes ofecosystem organization or design. Finally,ecologists will (4) show ecological theory canhelp solve environmental problems both inpristine and in human-dominated systems. Afailure to solve – or even to address – theseobstacles suggests that theoretical ecology maybecome a formal science that studies themathematical consequences of assumptionswithout regard to the relation of theseassumptions to the world.

Ecology Ecosystem Philosophy of science Theory 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mark Sagoff
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute for Philosophy and Public PolicyUniversity of MarylandCollege ParkU.S.A.

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