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Kevin deLaplante

(Forthcoming in Encyclopedia of Ecology, Elsevier.)

Philosophy of Ecology: An Overview

The philosophy of ecology addresses foundational conceptual and methodological issues
in ecological science. Specifying these issues is complicated by the fact that there is
disagreement among ecologists over how to identify the proper domain of ecology.
Many ecologists prefer a more restrictive definition that focuses on properties of
nonhuman organisms in natural environments. Others defend a more expansive
definition that includes the study of human-environment relations, a view that challenges
the traditional conception of ecology as strictly a natural biological science.
Consequently, one's understanding of the philosophy of ecology will depend in part on
whether one endorses a more restrictive or more expansive conception of ecology. This
article reviews issues in the philosophy of ecology in both its restrictive and expansive
modes. In its restrictive mode, the philosophy of ecology addresses conceptual and
methodological issues in population, community and ecosystem ecology. In its
expansive mode, the philosophy of ecology also addresses foundational issues in the
human ecological sciences, such as ecological economics and ecological psychology. In
this expansive mode the line between ecology-the-science and ecology-the-philosophical-
worldview becomes increasingly blurred, but a commitment to scientific methodology
prevents ecology from becoming a mere mouthpiece for speculative or radical ecological


At its most general level, the philosophy of ecology is the philosophical study of (a)
ecological phenomena, and (b) those disciplines that study ecological phenomena.

This definition has certain virtues, but it lacks content until we specify what we mean by
ecological phenomena and what sorts of disciplines study such phenomena. The task is
complicated by the fact that the term ecology is used in different ways in different

Ecology is of course a science, but ecology is also identified with a broader philosophical
and ethical worldview that in various respects predates modern ecological science. In the
romantic ecology of the 19
century associated with writers like Wordsworth, Thoreau
and Emerson, it was associated with a rejection of mechanistic, atomistic and
reductionistic science and philosophy that was believed to be responsible for a variety of
human and natural ills. This conception carried over into the ecology movement of the
1960s, an environmental movement tied to broader socio-cultural movements of that
decade (womens liberation, civil rights, and a range of anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist
and anti-militarist movements). In recent decades the term has been appropriated by a
number of socio-political movements and philosophies that seek to diagnose and
ameliorate humanitys dysfunctional relationship with nature (deep ecology, social
ecology, socialist ecology, ecofeminism, etc.). Do all of these philosophies count as
philosophies of ecology? Are they all branches of the philosophy of ecology?

Within academic philosophy, the most common approach to this question tries to draw a
distinction between ecological science and the ethical, social and broader philosophical
uses of the term. Proponents of this approach reserve the term philosophy of ecology
for the philosophical study of ecological science qua science, with a focus on conceptual
issues in fields like behavioral ecology, population ecology, community ecology,
evolutionary ecology and ecosystem ecology. On this view, ecology is conceived as a
branch of the natural, biological sciences, and the philosophy of ecology as a
specialization within the philosophy of science. Though they may occasionally appeal to
the ecological sciences for intellectual support for their various philosophical positions,
deep ecology, social ecology and other radical eco-philosophies are regarded as branches
of social theory or environmental philosophy, not the philosophy of ecology.

The approach just described has much to recommend it, but the conception of the
philosophy of ecology that will be developed in this article takes a somewhat different
tack, one that endorses a broader conception of both the domain of ecology and the
philosophy of ecology than is commonly found in the literature. This approach views
ecology as a discipline that spans both the natural and social/behavioral sciences. Once
this broader conception of ecological science is acknowledged, it becomes increasingly
difficult to draw sharp lines between philosophical issues raised by ecological science
and philosophical issues raised by a broader ecological worldview.

Ecology: The Study of Ecological Phenomena

Ecology is, at its most general level, the study of ecological phenomena. This simple
definition is more useful than it appears.

First, though it may initially seem vacuous, the definition acquires content when we
specify what it is for a phenomenon to be ecological. It is a useful exercise because it
forces us to consider the object of ecological theorizing rather than the specific
techniques, theories or methodologies that characterize particular forms of ecological
science. We want to know what it is about a given subject matter that suggests to the
investigator that ecological concepts may be appropriately or usefully applied to it in the
first place.

Second, the definition allows us to distinguish ecological science from other forms of
ecological inquiry simply by defining ecological science as the scientific study of
ecological phenomena. It is important to keep the issue of the scientific status of
different forms of ecological inquiry separate from the question of what it is about some
phenomenon that motivates an ecological inquiry in the first place.

Third, we can now give a correspondingly straightforward definition of a philosophy of
ecology. If ecology is the study of ecological phenomena, then a philosophy of ecology
is the philosophical study of ecological phenomena. However, this definition fails to
capture the second-order character of much philosophical theorizing (thinking about
thinking about X); we will also want to talk about the philosophical study of the study of
ecological phenomena, i.e. the philosophical study of ecology.

For the remainder of this article we will interpret ecology as ecological science and the
philosophy of ecology as the philosophy of ecological science.

Two Conceptions of the Domain of Ecology

What exactly is the domain of ecology?

Among ecologists and philosophers we can distinguish two schools of thought on this
question, each motivated by a variety of methodological, institutional and social factors.
There are those who defend a more restrictive view of the domain of ecology, and those
who endorse a more expansive view. The distinction is important as it imposes a
corresponding distinction on ways of understanding the philosophy of ecology.

The Restrictive View: Ecology as Natural Biological Science

The more restrictive view of ecological science is the one encountered today in most
standard textbooks used to teach ecology, and currently has the status of orthodoxy
within academic ecology. This view was strongly influenced by the rise of evolutionary
and population ecology in the 1960s and 70s, which reinforced an organism-centered
conception of ecology that focused on demographic properties of populations and
communities. It also developed in response to the appropriation of the term ecology by
the environmental movement during the same period, which pressured ecologists to
clarify how ecology differs from a general concern for environmental welfare.

Supporters of the restrictive conception of ecology are inclined to agree with the
following claims:

Ecology is a pluralistic discipline with many sub-fields, but ultimately it should be
understood as a natural (as opposed to social), biological (as opposed to physical)

The ultimate aim of ecology is to explain and predict patterns and changes in the
distribution and abundance of organisms. Ecology is, fundamentally, a science of
demographic processes. Ecosystem processes acquire their ecological relevance
indirectly, in virtue of their impact on demographic properties of ecological

Ecology focuses on the natural world of plants and animals. Ecology does not
study the root causes of human impacts on the environment, or the social
ramifications of such impacts. That is the job of the human social sciences and the
humanities, and interdisciplinary fields like environmental studies, which should be
distinguished from the natural science of ecology.

The Expansive View: Ecology as Synthetic Systems Science

More expansive conceptions of ecology have also been popular, both within and outside
academic ecology. Expansive conceptions of ecology flourished during the heyday of
ecosystem and systems ecology under the influence of Eugene and Howard Odum
(roughly 1950 late 1970s). Though currently a minority view in mainstream academic
ecology, expansionism has seen a resurgence in certain branches of applied ecology (e.g.
systems approaches in conservation ecology and ecosystem management), and it has
always been a foundational premise of ecological economics and those traditions of
human ecology that claim a strong kinship to scientific ecology.

Supporters of a more expansive conception of ecology are likely to agree with the
following claims:

Ecology is a pluralistic discipline with many sub-fields, and should be understood
both as an interdisciplinary science that spans the physical, biological and social
sciences, and as a synthetic science that has as one of its aims to integrate
ecologically relevant information from various different spatial and temporal scales
and levels of organization, including human social organization.

The ultimate aim of ecology is to explain and predict properties of living systems
(individuals, populations, communities) as functions of their relationships to their
various biotic and abiotic environments. These properties include, but are not
restricted to, demographic processes concerning abundance and distribution of

Human beings are the most ecologically influential species on the planet and human
ecology the study of the ecological dimensions of human nature and human
behavior, including the root causes of environmental attitudes and practices is an
important and legitimate branch of ecology.

Though there exists a set of research traditions in sociology that bear the name human
ecology, this expression is better understood as a generally umbrella term for a wide
range of scientific disciplines that address different aspects of human-environment
relations. Human ecology would thus include fields like ecological economics,
ecological anthropology, ecological history and ecological psychology.

The distinction between the restrictive and expansive conceptions of ecology outlined
above induces a corresponding distinction between restrictive and expansive conceptions
of the philosophy of ecology.

Issues in the Philosophy of Ecology: Restrictive Mode

Philosophy of ecology in its more restrictive mode focuses on philosophical issues in
population, community, evolutionary and ecosystem ecology as these fields are ordinarily
represented in the standard textbooks and journals. In this mode, the philosophy of
ecology is generally understood as a specialization within the philosophy of the natural,
biological sciences, alongside (and overlapping with) other such specializations, such as
the philosophy of evolutionary theory. For the most part, this is how the subject matter of
the philosophy of ecology is conceived within the tradition of Anglo-American
philosophy of science.

Many of the philosophical issues studied within this mode are better understood by
situating them within the context of the broader intellectual debate that has served to
structure much of the foundational discourse of ecology in the twentieth century. This is
the debate between holistic and reductionistic research traditions in ecology.

As the story is usually told, holists believe that ecological systems exhibit order, structure
and regularity at population, community and ecosystem levels of organization, with
higher-level properties and regularities both emerging out of and constraining lower-level
properties and regularities. Hence, holists believe the search for law-like generalizations
governing the behavior of populations, communities and ecosystems is a reasonable and
desirable goal of ecological research, and formal investigations of community and
ecosystem structure are a worthwhile indeed, indispensable activity. The ecosystem
concept has its home within this broadly holistic picture of ecological systems.

Reductionists, on the other hand (as the story goes), believe that ecological systems are
nothing more than assemblages of individual species populations whose behavior is
determined largely by response to local environmental conditions (both biotic and
abiotic). There are no such things as communities or ecosystems with emergent
causal properties of their own; any properties they have are, at best, epiphenomenal
statistical properties of the collection of species populations that compose them. The
ecological properties of species populations are best understood in evolutionary terms, as
products of natural selection and other evolutionary mechanisms. Consequently,
reductionists eschew the search for general laws governing large classes of ecological
systems, for it is assumed there are none to discover; rather, their focus is on local,
historically contingent, site-specific investigations of population behaviors and
environmental conditions.

This dualistic narrative, or some variant of it, has provided the motivating context for
most of the writings on foundational issues in ecology, from the early decades of the 20

century through to the present (e.g. the Clements-Gleason debate over the nature of
communities and ecological succession). In this context, to engage in the philosophy of
ecology is to take up and defend a position on foundational issues that places one
somewhere along the spectrum between extreme holism and extreme reductionism.

One can characterize the core issues in the philosophy of ecology in terms of a set of
metaphysical and epistemological questions on a handful of key topics:

The metaphysical status of ecological entities: What is a population, a community, an
ecosystem? Do ecological entities have emergent properties that play a causal role in
determining how ecological systems change over time? Is the concept of a community or
an ecosystem even operationally meaningful?

Law-like regularity versus historical contingency: Does ecology have general laws? If
so, what are the causal properties of ecological systems that ground these regularities? Is
the existence of such laws consistent with neo-Darwinian selection theory operating at
the level of individual organisms? At what levels of organization should we expect to see
such laws?

The epistemology of modeling: What is the proper role of theoretical models and model-
building in ecological science? If models can only give approximate descriptions of real-
world ecological systems, how should their predictions be tested and assessed? Should
we interpret theoretical models realistically or as mere tools for organizing, explaining
and predicting observable patterns in ecological data?

Model-driven versus data-driven research traditions: Should ecological research
focus on empirical case studies of particular ecological systems rather than general
model-building? How should we compare the results of controlled ecological
experiments with the results of comparative field studies of natural systems? What are
the weaknesses and advantages of each approach?

Evolution and ecology: Is natural selection acting at the level of individual organisms
sufficient to explain the organization and structure of communities? Do ecosystems co-
evolve with their component species populations? How, in general, do evolutionary and
ecological mechanisms interact?

This list is incomplete, but the majority of philosophers of science who specialize in the
philosophy of ecology have research programs that bear directly on some subset of these

Have any consensus views emerged with respect to any of these questions? As with any
branch of philosophy it would be overly optimistic to expect consensus on foundational
questions. One can, however, identify historical and recent trends in how ecologists and
philosophers have viewed these issues. One can say, for example, that the 1950s and 60s
were dominated by holistic approaches in ecology, and there was a high degree of
optimism about the prospect of a mature ecological science that could compare favorably
with law-governed fields like physics. Opinion swung the other way in the 1970s and
80s with the rise to dominance of evolutionary and population approaches in ecology,
during which period greater emphasis was placed on historically contingent, site-specific
features of ecological systems, along with an attending skepticism about laws in ecology
and criticism of holistic approaches in ecology generally. Professional philosophers of
science have really only started looking at these questions within the last fifteen years,
but recent work indicates that the pendulum is swinging back to a more intermediate
position between the holistic optimism of the 1950s and the reductionistic pessimism of
the 1980s.

Issues in the Philosophy of Ecology: Expansive Mode

Those who endorse a more expansive conception of ecological science believe that
ecological concepts and theories may be usefully applied to a broader range of
phenomena than do defenders of the more restrictive conception. In this section we
review two sources of motivation for the expansive conception, and introduce a set of
issues for the philosophy of ecology pertaining to each source.

Systems Ecology

One of the sources of motivation for the expansive conception of ecology is reflection on
the domain of systems ecology. Systems ecologists use a variety of formal techniques
network theory, information theory, dynamical systems theory, etc. to describe the
structural and dynamical properties of whole ecosystems. But why should systems
ecology be associated with the expansive conception of ecology? Is systems ecology not
commonly viewed as a branch of traditional ecosystem ecology?

To answer this question it may be useful to distinguish three related types of ecological
properties or phenomena:

1. properties of biological entities that depend on or make essential reference to
relations to environments;

2. properties of environments that depend on or make essential reference to relations to
biological entities, and

3. properties of the relations that obtain between biological entities and their

Different research traditions in ecology can be distinguished in part by which of these
three categories of ecological phenomena are the main focus of study. Population and
community ecology, for example, are organism-centered branches of ecological science
that focus on phenomena of type (1). The magnitude and rate of change of properties like
population size and density and community composition all depend in various ways on
the relationships that the component populations have to their biotic and abiotic

Empirically-oriented forms of ecosystem ecology (i.e. biogeochemistry and ecological
stoichiometry) tend to focus on phenomena of type (2) involving stocks and flows of
biologically relevant elements, nutrients and minerals. For example, the standing stock
of phosphorus in a lake ecosystem is a property of the environment of the lakes biotic
community, but its properties depend in part on the biotic activities of this community.

Systems ecology, by contrast, focuses on phenomena of type (3). The nodes of an
abstractly defined ecological network are meant to correspond to functionally defined
ecological types (predators, filter feeders, deposited detritus, microbiota, etc.), but for the
most part the phenomena of interest to systems ecologists are the network or
organizational properties of such systems (e.g. connectance, cycling indices, throughputs,
and other measures of network structure and function). Systems ecologists are perhaps
better described as complex systems ecologists; they seek to describe and explain
macro-level patterns in the structure and behavior of ecosystems patterns, for example,
associated with self-organizing processes that may be characteristic of certain generic
classes of complex systems.

A striking feature of such complex systems patterns is that they can often be realized in
systems of different kinds (physical, chemical, biological, ecological, etc.). To give just
two examples: (1) the same critical point phenomena observed in phase transitions in
gases and fluids can be observed in the transition from ferromagnetic to paramagnetic
state in magnetic materials; and (2) the same period-doubling route to chaotic dynamics
has been observed in systems as diverse as fluids, chemical clocks, electrical circuits,
lasers and acoustic systems. These and other complex systems behaviors have the
following generic features:

1. The details of the system (those details that would feature in a complete causal-
mechanical explanation of the systems behavior) are largely irrelevant for describing
the behavior of interest.

2. Many different systems with completely different micro details will exhibit the
identical behavior.

What do fluids, chemical systems, electrical circuits, lasers and acoustic systems have in
common that would explain their common period-doubling route to chaotic dynamics?
Whatever it is, it cannot have much to do with the specific material properties of the
components that make up these systems. Any explanation must refer to the relational or
structural features that the systems have in common in short, it must abstract away from
the matter to identify the underlying form that is common to all the systems in

Theoretical systems ecology looks to discover properties of this type that describe
ecological systems, but due to their formal character, they may equally describe
properties of neural networks in the brain or human socio-economic networks. It should
not be surprising, then, that systems ecologists have a tendency to speculate on the
implications of their work for phenomena in other branches of natural and social science.

Philosophers of ecology have largely ignored systems ecology, an unfortunate situation
given the number of interesting philosophical questions that the field raises. For

What precisely does it mean to say that a real-world ecosystem instantiates or
exemplifies the organizational properties of a formal ecosystem model?

How do we know when a real-world system actually instantiates a particular formal
model? How can such claims be tested? What evidence would bear on them?

How do the formal properties of ecological systems (the properties that might be
instantiated in many different kinds of systems) interact with the material properties
of ecological systems (the properties that are particular to the material constitution
of the system in question), to generate observed structural and behavioral patterns?

Does the existence of formal properties of ecosystems demand a holistic view of
ecosystems, or is it compatible with a reductionistic view whereby the properties of
the whole are determined by the properties of the component parts?

Human Ecological Sciences

We have already noted a second motivation for an expansive conception of ecological
science, viz. the fact that there already exists a variety of ecological sciences that deal
with human-environment relations.

There are sub-disciplines within traditional ecology, such as human paleoecology and
human paleobiology, that focus on human-environment relations in the evolutionary past.
These disciplines are components of human origins research, an interdisciplinary field
that draws on expertise in anthropology, archeology and linguistics as well as traditional
ecology and biology. Philosophers have taken great interest in human origins research.
The field is foundational for human sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, which in
turn are foundational for naturalistic theories of cultural evolution, and for a variety of
positions in the philosophy of mind, language, and ethics.

There also exist a variety of ecological disciplines that study human-environment
relations in the present, such as ecological economics, ecological psychology, ecological
anthropology, and ecological sociology. Those who work in these fields usually have
disciplinary affiliations in economics, psychology, anthropology or sociology, rather than
biology or ecology, yet it is typical for workers in these non-traditional ecological
disciplines to view their field as continuous with a general ecological science of
organism-environment relationships.

Note that acknowledging these disciplines as ecological sciences does not imply that they
all employ the same scientific methods, nor that they are all equally successful as
sciences. It implies only that at some level they are part of a common scientific

It should be obvious that a philosophy of ecology that includes all these human ecological
sciences within its scope will have a correspondingly broader sweep than its more
restrictive counterpart, since it self-consciously includes philosophical issues relating to
the ecological dimensions of human cognition, human social organization, and human-
environment relations more broadly. In this mode, the philosophy of ecology naturally
spans both the natural and social sciences, and reaches deeper into the domain of socio-
political philosophy and ethics than it does in its more restrictive mode.

Consider, for example, philosophical issues in ecological economics. One goal of
ecological economics is to devise methods of economic valuation and organization that
promote the goals of long-term ecological and economic sustainability. A fundamental
challenge of this goal is to provide a meaningful definition of sustainable that applies to
ecological and economic systems. Research on this question has shown that the concept
of sustainability is inherently value-laden, and that one cannot properly address the issue
without considering the ethical and socio-political consequences of public policies that
would operationalize the concept. Evaluating these consequences is, naturally, a task for
ethics and socio-political philosophy. But if ecological economics is a branch of ecology,
and the foundational issues of ecological economics belong to the philosophy of ecology,
then the challenge of evaluating the ethical and socio-political dimensions of the concept
of sustainability also belongs to the philosophy of ecology. Similar reasoning applies to
the foundational problems of all the human ecological sciences noted above.

Ecology-the-Science and Ecology-the-Worldview

In the introduction we noted two senses of the term ecology, one associated with
ecology as a natural biological science and the other associated with ecology as a
philosophical worldview concerned with human-environment relations in the broadest
sense. The dominant tradition in the philosophy of ecology tries to separate these senses
as much as possible, restricting the philosophy of ecology to the investigation of
foundational issues in ecological science and relegating the ethical, political and more
speculative metaphysical dimensions of the broader ecological worldview to other
branches of philosophy. This approach has its merits; it is consistent with the way most
professional ecologists understand ecology and it makes more efficient use of the
professional division of labor among philosophers.

We also noted, however, that there has been disagreement among ecologists over how to
understand the domain of ecology. Some argue for a more restrictive conception of
ecology that identifies it with the traditional ecological disciplines taught in natural
science departments. Others argue for a more expansive conception that includes the
study of human-environment relations. We saw how this expansive conception of
ecology draws support from two sources, first, a consideration of the distinctive character
of systems ecology, and second, the existence of a variety of human ecological sciences.

If we accept an expansive conception of ecology, do we lose the sharp distinction
between ecology-the-science and ecology-the-worldview that was such an attractive
feature of the restrictive conception? Yes and no. On the one hand, the philosophy of
ecology in its expansive mode will inevitably include questions that address
metaphysical, epistemological and normative issues that are also addressed in more
speculative ecological and environmental philosophies. The domains of the philosophy
of ecology and environmental philosophy will necessarily overlap.

On the other hand, in demanding that ecology operate as a science that is beholden to the
epistemological standards of the scientific disciplines that it encompasses, and not to the
presuppositions of any particular philosophical worldview, then ecological science will
retain its autonomy and identity as a science. Though their domains may overlap, the
methods of empirical science distinguish ecology-the-science from ecology-the-

6. Further Reading

Allen, T. F. H. and Hoekstra, T. W. (1992). Toward a unified ecology. New York:
Columbia University Press.

Brennan, A. (1988). Thinking about nature: an investigation of nature, value and
ecology. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Cooper, G. J. (2003). The science of the struggle for existence: on the foundations of
ecology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Cuddington, K. and Beisner, B. (eds.) (2005). Ecological paradigms lost: routes of theory
change. London: Elsevier Academic Press.

deLaplante, K. (2004). Toward a more expansive conception of ecological science.
Biology and Philosophy 19: 263-281.

Ginzburg, L. and Colyvan, M. (2004). Ecological orbits: how planets move and
populations grow. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gunderson, L. H. and Holling, C. S. (eds.) (2002). Panarchy: understanding
transformations in human and natural systems. Washington: Island Press.

Keller, D. R. and Golley, F. B. (eds.) (2000). The philosophy of ecology: from science to
synthesis. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Mikkelson, G. M. (2003). Ecological kinds and ecological laws. Philosophy of Science

Odenbaugh, J. (2003). Complex systems, trade-offs and mathematical modeling: a
response to Sober and Orzack" Philosophy of Science 70: 14961507.

Peters, R. (1991). A critique for ecology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Real, L. A. and Brown, J. H. (eds.) (1991). Foundations of ecology: classic papers with
commentaries. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sarkar, S. (2005). Biodiversity and environmental philosophy: an introduction. New
York: Cambridge University Press.

Schrader-Frechette, K. S. and McCoy, E. D. (1993). Method in ecology: strategies for
conservation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, P. J. (2005). Unruly complexity: ecology, interpretation, engagement. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.