The Laws of Ecology?

Green landscape

It was thanks to a conference called "Laws of Nature, Laws of God?" that I had the invitation to join a project of the International Society for Science and Religion about holistic biology - where I was to bring expertise in the science of ecology.  So perhaps it's no surprise that my main contribution to this project so far has been a paper exploring what kind of laws there might be for ecology.

Many people I talk to about "ecology" think of the ecological ethic: sustainable lifestyles and the Green movement.  But that's not my subject here: my professional interest is in the science of how living organisms interact with each other and the rest of their environment.  And I'm especially interested in the philosophy of ecology, because that is where I think we may detect hints of the worldviews that ground the discipline. And worldviews are part of religious (and 'anti-religious') traditions.

A few weeks ago I described what makes this ISSR project so stimulating.  An added bonus was that participants were invited to write papers for a special issue of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. So now I'm pleased to say that the special issue has appeared, and in it a paper entitled "Laws in ecology: diverse modes of explanation for a holistic science".  As its title page shows, it enjoys the company of a number of other intriguing articles.

First page of the article by Gunton & Gilbert

But what could be "Christian" about exploring what kind of laws there might be in ecology?  Perhaps nothing too explicit - it isn't a matter of talking about salvation through Christ alone!  On the other hand, we are talking about an aspect of this creation that is God's temple.  And some ways of scientifically interpreting the created order may be more befitting our status as fallen creatures than others.

What do I have in mind? Well, for one thing I think that we scientists ought to be open-minded towards a range of different models of anything we study, including to models offered by different disciplines.  Within any discipline, models come and go, as do theories, and entire research programmes.  In ecology, it it can be seen that some theories have shifted their attention towards greater spatial scales over recent decades - and, most strikingly, that a range of quite different research programmes (or perhaps 'paradigms') is happily coexisting.  The multi-aspectual perspective of reformational philosophy suggested a way to describe and distinguish four different paradigms of contemporary ecology - which is perhaps the main insight that Francis and I offer in our paper.  And these - which we call the "population", "macroecological", "trait" and "ecosystemic" paradigms - each focus on different kinds of measurable quantities, which means they can, potentially, offer rather different kinds of scientific laws.  We make it clear that by 'laws' we mean something like 'robust quantified generalisations', not wanting here to engage in debate about how laws relate to causation.  Encouragingly, a paper appeared shortly before ours whose bold title made clear that we were not the only ones using the term "laws" for the natural relationships that ecologists seek to quantify.

Working on this paper gave me a tremendous sense of perspective on my discipline and an ability to appreciate the differences among the many different visions and projects that I come across in academic ecology.  Francis and I hope to pick up dialogue with fellow ecologists about the idea of the four paradigms and to pursue some more quantitative research ourselves on the topic - as well as to inspire similar investigations in other sciences.  And for my part, I hope that we've shown how a Christian philosophy of science can reveal more of the rich cultural diversity of the scientific enterprise itself - as well as the rich diversity of the natural world that scientists study - and all to the glory of God.

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