Thursday, 6 January 2011

Book review: The philosophy of ecology; from science to synthesis

I like to mix things up pretty much all the time (none of this every once in a while nonsense) so I thought I would do a book review. I spied the Philosophy of Ecology when I was browsing the web curious to see what other individuals may have pre-emptively stolen and published my great ideas! (Or becoming aware of existing literature in the field as it is sometimes known)As soon as I saw this title knew at once this was a great idea for a book.

Essentially, the editors have gathered together a group of ecologists and philosophers all in one place, locked them in a room and didn’t let them out until they had assembled a tome of synthesized knowledge. The book is rigorously broken down by philosophical topic in true reductionist style, but also consciously ties parts from different sections together with some success in a lovely holistic way.

The various philosophical principles that relate to ecology are each approached in the same way. The section is introduced and the major trends of thought are examined by one of the editors in the form of a philosophical essay. Then several noteworthy and often historically significant ecology papers are presented, these are edited to keep the principles in focus and to downplay the experiments and data except when they relate directly to the philosophy. Finally each chapter is wrapped up by another philosophical essay often merging the ideas of stubborn scientists into one (semi) unified whole.

I very much enjoyed the idea of the book and I agree with the vast number of its conclusions. Indeed I even think it is one of the best possible approaches to the task. The book reads as a philosophy and science sandwich. Including the real papers of eminent scientists was a strong move, something I think that was close to the editor’s heart. An early complaint and I believe a legitimate reason for this book was that many people don’t know what they mean when they say ecological. Indeed most ecologists say things or do things that many in the ‘Green’ movement would not consider ecological!

The transition from scientist to philosopher feels a little bit jarring at times but I think the approach was well considered and by the end the reader is immersed not only in the philosophical but also the scientific questions that built up the new field of ecology, a field that is still growing and spreading its wings.

If I were to find one serious flaw with the book it would be with the complete domination of analytic philosophy as the method of approach. The book mentions in one line that Eastern philosophical systems possess well developed notions of direct relevance to the holism and reductionism debate and then summarily ignores all of these concepts. The scientific community is well represented with fluffy holists like Eugene Odum, mathematical powerhouses like Robert May and fence menders like Stephen Jay Gould. Yet the philosophical approach is uniquely one sided, there is barely a whiff of the idealist school of philosophy, even Deep Ecology or Ecofeminism which are directly relevant to the topic in hand. The exclusion of other philosophical approaches even in synthetic statements is the one glaring weakness in an otherwise well executed introduction to the area.

So in my final assessment I would say brilliant but incomplete. I would recommend it to anyone with a background in either ecology or philosophy that would like to step boldly into new territory. If you have an interest in both, this is an engaging read that will leave you with all sorts of new thoughts and questions.


  1. You seem to disagree with reductionism, but there's a good way and a bad way to go about that.

    At it's core, reductionism is simply the statement that the universe evolves according to laws that operate on its most fundamental constituents (quarks). Laws at a higher level (literally anything above the Standard Model) exist because we don't have the computational power to model the interactions of all the quarks.

    Look at it this way; if I could adequately model all the quarks in a cricket bat and ball and the earth (for the gravitational attraction), I wouldn't need Newtonian mechanics to describe the balls trajectory (probably this particular ball would be nicked by Ponting and caught at slip). It would be perfectly specified by the quark calculation. Newtonian mechanics (the higher level law) exists as a hack, because the full quark calculation is computationally impossible.

    If you accept that, then you agree with the core of reductionism. If you disagree with that, then you disagree with all of physics (I'd say you shouldn't do that lightly). The key reductionist statement is that higher level laws are simply statistical approximations of lower level laws. There are no laws that only operate on higher levels of organisation. Two truly identical configurations of quarks will behave in an identical manner (in fact, physics tells us that they would be truly indistinguishable) irrelevant of any alleged decisions made at the higher level.

    There are times, however, when a particular individual with a reductionist bent will 'reduce' a situation in an inappropriate manner. There are a variety of mistakes that can be made here, and I won't detail them all, but one might be to throw away important information (e.g. reduce the previous example further and model the cricket ball without gravity - an obvious error). If this is your problem with 'reductionism', then you're correct, but not really disagreeing with the philosophy, more with a particular idiots incorrect implementation.

  2. Hi Marc,

    Thanks for your post. I think you hay have misinterpeted my holistic fervour that occaisonally grips me as a critism of reductionsm. I have no major problem with reductionism, indeed one of the strength of this particular book was the section on the holism reductionism debate.

    I see them as two sides of examining the world.

    Holism is intergrative and as you say statistical in nature, it is an apporach of overall trends and works well with unstable or chaotic systems and those with extensive feeback loops (such as living systems...probably where my slight bias comes from).

    Reductionism works by attempting to find fundamental laws and models indvidual component parts. It works exceptionally well in simple and closed systems.

    As you say both have strengths and weaknesses. A pure reductionist approach would ultimately take as much computing power as the thing you are trying to model! (My mind conjours up trying to model the evolution and gene flow of two populations of predators and prey over 100,000 years using data on quarks!) A holistic model can miss important information. I love the Taiji (Yin Yang) symbol, but I wouldnt trust it to describe the operations of a biological cell!

    I am most definately not disagreeing with reductionism. My main focus is on addressing the issue of the most appropriate model for the task in hand. My approach is most defiantely less on fundamental laws and more on practical assesments (as I consider all laws to be models after all and not fundamental features of nature). Often I find a blend of both methods is the best approach.

    Thankyou very much for your post, I hope this clears up my position a little bit.