Yes! There are Resilient Generalizations (or “Laws”) in Ecology


It is often argued that ecological communities admit of no useful generalizations or “laws” because these systems are especially prone to contingent historical events. Detractors respond that this argument assumes an overly stringent definition of laws of nature. Under a more relaxed conception, it is argued that ecological laws emerge at the level of communities and elsewhere. A brief review of this debate reveals an issue with deep philosophical roots that is unlikely to be resolved by a better understanding of generalizations in ecology. We therefore propose a strategy for transforming the conceptual question about the nature of ecological laws into a set of empirically tractable hypotheses about the relative resilience of ecological generalizations across three dimensions: taxonomy, habitat type, and scale. These hypotheses are tested using a survey of 240 meta-analyses in ecology. Our central finding is that generalizations in community ecology are just as prevalent and as resilient as those in population or ecosystem ecology. These findings should help to establish community ecology as a generality-seeking science as opposed to a science of case studies. It also supports the capacity for ecologists, working at any of the three levels, to inform matters of public policy.

The Quarterly Review of Biology