Are there general causal forces in ecology?
Mark Sagoff adresses this question in a new paper in Synthese.
In this paper, I adopt the view that if general forces or processes can be detected in ecology, then the principles or models that represent them should provide predictions that are approximately correct and, when not, should lead to the sorts of intervening factors that usually make trouble. I argue that Lotka–Volterra principles do not meet this standard; in both their simple “strategic” and their complex “tactical” forms they are not approximately correct of the findings of the laboratory experiments and historical studies most likely to confirm them; nor do they instruct ecologists where to look for likely intervening factors. Evidence drawn from long-term case studies and other available data sets suggests that the populations of predators and their prey are not regulated by an interaction between them but are controlled by transient, contingent, and accidental events that affect each animal and each population individualistically. This paper argues that the presence of general forces or processes in ecology should be determined by comparing competing models of these forces not just to each other or to a null model but also to case studies that may challenge theoretical approaches with convincing individualistic causal accounts of the phenomena.