Theorizing about Ecological Complexity, mid 1980s-2000

Constructionist and landscape views (Taylor 2005, Chapter 1, Part A) reinforce other currents that have undermined the aspirations of earlier decades for identifying general principles about systems and communities (Kingsland 1995, 213-251; Taylor and Haila 2001).  Since the 1980s ecologists in general have become increasingly aware that situations may vary according to historical trajectories that have led to them; that particularities of place and connections among places matter; that time and place is a matter of scales that differ among co-occurring species; that variation among individuals can qualitatively alter the ecological process; that this variation is a result of ongoing differentiation occurring within populations—which are specifically located and inter-connected—and that interactions among the species under study can be artifacts of the indirect effects of other “hidden” species (see Taylor 2005, Chapter1, section B).

In patch dynamic studies, for example, the scale and frequency of disturbances that create open “patches” is now emphasized as much as species interactions in the periods between disturbances (Pickett and White 1985).  Studies of succession and of the immigration and extinction dynamics for habitat patches pay attention to the particulars of species dispersal and the habitat being colonized, and how these determine successful colonization for different species (Gray et al. 1987).  Meta-population theory examines the persistence not of communities but of populations (or phoretic associations of communities on carrier species) in a landscape of patches (Hastings and Harrison 1994).  On a larger scale such a shift in focus is supported by biogeographic comparisons which show that continental floras and faunas are not necessarily in equilibrium with the extant environmental conditions (Haila and Järvinen 1990).  From a different angle, models that distinguish among individual organisms (in their characteristics and spatial location) have been shown to generate certain observed ecological patterns, such as patterns of change in size distribution of individuals in a population over time, where large scale, aggregated models have not (DeAngelis and Gross 1992).  And, the effects mediated through the populations not immediately in focus or unrecognized upset the methodology of observing the direct interactions among populations and confound many principles, such as the competitive exclusion principle, derived on that basis (Taylor 2005,Chapter 1, section B; Wootton 1994).

By and large philosophers of ecology, environmental ethicists, environmentalists, and others who invoke principles of ecology have yet to address the implications for their fields of this picture of ecological complexity (Taylor 1997a; Taylor and Haila 2001).

Extracted from Taylor, P.J. (2005) Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press).


DeAngelis, D. L. and L. J. Gross (Eds.) (1992). Populations and Communities: An Individual-based Perspective. New York: Chapman and Hall.

Gray, A. J., M. J. Crawley and P. J. Edwards (Eds.) (1987). Colonization, Succession and Stability. 26th Symposium of the British Ecological Society. Oxford: Blackwell.

Haila, Y. and O. Järvinen (1990). “Northern conifer forests and their bird species assemblages,” in A. Keast (Ed.), Biogeography and Ecology of Forest Bird Communities.  The Hague: SPB Acad. Publishing, 65-81.

Hastings, A. and Harrison, S.: 1994, ‘Metapopulation dynamics and genetics’,  Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 25, 167-188.

Kingsland, S. (1995). Modeling Nature:  Episodes in the History of Population Ecology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2nd. ed., 213-251;

Pickett, S. T. A. and P. S. White (Eds.) (1985). The Ecology of Natural Disturbance and Patch Dynamics. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

Taylor, P. J. and Y. Haila (2001). “Situatedness and Problematic Boundaries: Conceptualizing Life’s Complex Ecological Context.” Biology & Philosophy 16(4): 521-532

Wootton, J. T. (1994). “The nature and consequences of indirect effects in ecological communities.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 25: 443-466.


One thought on “Theorizing about Ecological Complexity, mid 1980s-2000

  1. Pingback: Linking Ecology and Ethics for a Changing World III « Intersecting Processes

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