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Are There General Laws in Ecology?

John H. Lawton
Oikos
Vol. 84, No. 2 (Feb., 1999), pp. 177-192
Published by: Wiley on behalf of Nordic Society Oikos
DOI: 10.2307/3546712
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3546712
Page Count: 16
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Are There General Laws in Ecology?
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Abstract

The dictionary definition of a law is: "Generalized formulation based on a series of events or processes observed to recur regularly under certain conditions; a widely observable tendency". I argue that ecology has numerous laws in this sense of the word, in the form of widespread, repeatable patterns in nature, but hardly any laws that are universally true. Typically, in other words, ecological patterns and the laws, rules and mechanisms that underpin them are contingent on the organisms involved, and their environment. This contingency is manageable at a relatively simple level of ecological organisation (for example the population dynamics of single and small numbers of species), and re-emerges also in a manageable form in large sets of species, over large spatial scales, or over long time periods, in the form of detail-free statistical patterns - recently called 'macroecology'. The contingency becomes overwhelmingly complicated at intermediate scales, characteristic of community ecology, where there are a large number of case histories, and very little other than weak, fuzzy generalisations. These arguments are illustrated by focusing on examples of typical studies in community ecology, and by way of contrast, on the macroecological relationship that emerges between local species richness and the size of the regional pool of species. The emergent pattern illustrated by local vs regional richness plots is extremely simple, despite the vast number of contingent processes and interactions involved in its generation. To discover general patterns, laws and rules in nature, ecology may need to pay less attention to the 'middle ground' of community ecology, relying less on reductionism and experimental manipulation, but increasing research efforts into macroecology.

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