A philosophy of theoretical ecology for environmental policy
Donhauser, Justin Charles
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This dissertation addresses two questions at the center of critical debate about ecology’s ability to provide scientific guidance in efforts to address mounting environmental problems. The first concerns whether and, if so, how theoretical ecological models (TEMs) can usefully inform environmental policy and resource management decision-making. The second concerns whether and, if so, in what manner the entities such models characterize (i.e., ecological populations, communities, and systems) exist. Throughout this work, I clarify how these questions are, and are not, related and infer answers to each by analyzing the arguments of critics of theoretical, TEM-based, ecological research and analyzing ecologist’s practices of using TEMs in landmark research studies. My analyses illuminate numerous ways in which theoretical ecological research can aid in environmental policy and resource management decision-making, and show that modern ecologists embrace a largely ontology-neutral metaphysics and instrumentalist epistemology (contrary to the received view among critics of ecology). I defuse a number of popular criticisms of theoretical ecological research by showing that they rely on confusions about ecology’s conceptual foundations and the reasoning processes employed in theoretical ecological research. At the same time, I take pains to isolate the substantive point about the limitations of such research that critics can reasonably make. Accordingly, the overarching structure of this dissertation sees it as an effort to, first, isolate the substantive point critics make about the limitations of theoretical ecological research and then identify ways in which such research can aid in practical decision-making despite those limitations. This dissertation pushes forward the philosophical and broader crossdisciplinary dialogue concerning ecology’s conceptual foundations and practical value, while at once directly addressing the ever more urgent practical need to make plain how theoretical ecological research can usefully inform crucially important political, ethical, and management decisions about how best to cope with mounting environmental problems. It contributes to multiple disciplines as such, and students and professionals of all stripes interested in ecology and its practical applications should find resources to extend their own investigations in it.