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Philosophical Topics

Volume 47, Issue 1, Spring 2019

The Philosophy of Ecology

Stefan Linquist
Pages 143-165

Why Ecology and Evolution Occupy Distinct Epistemic Niches

Recent examples of rapid evolution under natural selection seem to require that the disciplines of ecology and evolution become better integrated. This inference makes sense only if one’s understanding of these disciplines is based on Hutchinson’s two-speed model of the ecological theater and the evolutionary play. Instead, these disciplines are more accurately viewed as occupying distinct “epistemic niches.” When so understood, we see that rapid evolution under selection, even if it is generally true, does not imply that evolutionary explanations are improved by the inclusion of ecological details. Nor are ecological explanations necessarily improved by the inclusion of information about trait variation, heritability, effective population size, or other standard evolutionary factors. To illustrate, I develop a version of Kitcher’s (1984) “gory details” argument to show that, even for some trait that is under strong directional selection, a dynamically sufficient explanation of its ecological relationships should ignore most of the information explaining why that trait is evolving. The wholesale integration of ecology and evolution looks even less appealing when empirical sufficiency, a purely practical requirement, is taken into account. As a way forward, I propose an eco-evo partitioning framework. This strategy enables researchers to estimate the empirical sufficiency of a purely ecological, a purely evolutionary, or a combined eco-evo approach.

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