Volume 47, Issue 1, Spring 2019
The Philosophy of Ecology
Jeremy W. Fox
The Many Roads to Generality in Ecology
The variety of nature presents a challenge for ecologists. Individual organisms differ from one another in ways both obvious and subtle, even if they’re members of the same species living in the same location. Different populations, species, communities, ecosystems, biomes, habitats, food webs, etc. also differ from another. What, if anything, can be said in general about ecological systems and how they work? If there are generalities in ecology, do they take the form of exceptionless “laws of nature” analogous to the laws of physics? Or do they take some other form? Should ecologists even try to identify ecological generalities? If so, how? The variety of nature is matched by the variety of ecologists’ answers to those questions. I will suggest that all of their answers are right—sometimes. Here I propose a taxonomy of the many different “roads to generality” in ecology: the various different kinds of “generality” that ecologists seek. I argue that each road to generality is valuable in its own way, but that different roads are useful in different contexts and for different purposes. Different roads to generality thus can be complementary to one another, and it would be a mistake for the field of ecology as a whole to focus exclusively on any one of them.