International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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FRIDAY, JULY 10  /  11:00 - 12:30  /  DS-M320
Individual papers
Ecological Theory and Practice: Philosophical Perspectives

Ecological theory and the niche

James Justus (Florida State University, United States)

At least until Hubbell’s neutral theory emerged, no concept was thought more important to theorizing in ecology than the niche. Without it––and its highly abstract definition by Hutchinson in particular––technically sophisticated and well-regarded theories of character displacement, limiting similarity, and many others would seemingly never have been developed. The niche concept is also the centerpiece of perhaps the best candidate for a distinctively ecological law, the competitive exclusion principle. But the incongruous array of proposed definitions of the concept squares poorly with its apparent centrality. I argue this definitional diversity reflects a problematic conceptual imprecision that challenges its putative indispensability in ecological theory. Recent attempts to integrate these disparate definitions into a unified characterization fail to resolve the imprecision.

Might organic feed the world? On the use of probabilities in modeling practice

Daniel Hicks (University of Western Ontario, Canada)

Philosophy of probability is generally divided into two camps, with two corresponding statistical methodologies. On the one hand are frequentists, who interpret probabilities as long-run distributions of measurement outcomes and who advocate the family of statistical methods grouped together under the name "null hypothesis testing." On the other hand are Bayesians, who interpret probabilities as subjective doxastic probabilities (credence levels or degrees of belief) and who advocate statistical methods based on the use of Bayes' theorem. This paper argues that the use of probabilities in hierarchical Bayesian modeling does not fit into either the frequentist or Bayesian camp. This technique is illustrated with a recent paper on the "yield gap" between organic and conventional agriculture (Ponsio et al. 2015). Ponsio et al. find that multi-cropping and crop rotations "substantially reduce the yield gap" between organic and conventional agriculture, which suggests that organic agriculture could "feed the world." This finding is based on the construction of a hierarchical Bayesian model. Because hierarchical Bayesian models do not use null hypothesis testing, they do not fit into the frequentist camp. On the other hand, the probabilities in these models are often distributions of observed or simulated frequencies, not subjective doxastic probabilities thus they do not fit into the Bayesian camp either. Finally, because these models involve idealizations and simplifying assumptions, there is reason to think that they should not be evaluated in terms of truth or credibility, but rather in terms of context-specific practical usefulness (Wimsatt 2007, Parker 2010). I discuss some implications of these philosophical observations for the interpretation of Ponsio et al.'s findings.

Resilience: Meaning, model and metaphor

Leila Cruz (Universidade Federal da Bahia, Brazil); Candelaria Estavillo (Universidade Federal da Bahia, Brazil); Clarissa Machado Pinto Leite (Universidade Federal da Bahia, Brazil); Charbel El-Hani (Universidade Federal da Bahia, Brazil)

The idea of resilience is at center stage in current sustainability debates. Like many scientific concepts, early technical and academic usages alluded to its popular sense, subsequently continuously modified in different features as every concept has a multifaceted character. These modifications either foster or hinder concept’s practical application and integration into theory. Resilience concept was originally a capacity of entities for quick recovery after disturbances, or an object’s physical property of returning to its original shape after deformation. In recent ecological and conservation literature this meaning has been refined and enriched substantially, acquiring particular properties according to different discourses. In this work we analyze the resilience concept in ecology and conservation biology along three dimensions, following Pickett and Cadenasso (2002) and Pickett, Kolasa and Jones (2007): meaning, model and metaphor. “Meaning” refers to a general proposition stating concept’s fundamental elements and their relations, in a scale-independent manner, aiming at broad application. “Model” specifies the classes of phenomena represented by the concept, for practical descriptive or experimental purposes. “Metaphor” refers to ideas explored in non- technical discourses, attached to it by actual instances and idiosyncrasies, as in communicating with general audiences. We present results of an exploratory research on these dimensions of the resilience concept as used in ecological and social-ecological academic literatures, specialized and non-specialized digital media, after analysis of most cited articles in 10-year intervals of articles published in these fields since 1980. Preliminary results indicate expansion of meaning dimension: system’s characterization shifts from emphasizing stability to emphasizing constant variation plus adaptive capabilities. In model dimension, results indicate development of applications mainly concerned with system stability but lack of implementation strategies considering the expanded notion and for metaphor dimension, usages in specialized media followed academic discourses while in general media usages were largely unrelated to environmental themes.