The Ecology of Knowledge: Ecological Resilience and the Structure of Scientific Revolutions

As students of science we have all, no doubt, absorbed the lessons from the history of our disciplines that changes in thinking tend not to be meted out incrementally. The Darwinian and Wallacean account of evolutionary change through natural selection did not merely supplement alternative, often supernatural, accounts of organic change through time. The idea was a revolutionary one – it turned the orthodoxies of the time on their heads and did so tumultuously and irrevocably (at least for those 40% or so of us who seem to accept evolutionary accounts). A revolution is rapid, and in the revolutionary moment one set of conceptual structures is replaced with another. After the revolution, the new structures may persist for a time – a period of “normal science” – even though, almost invariably, the data accumulated through the lens of new theories may not always be fully supportive of those newly ascendant theories. And as those cracks begin to show the Darwins and Wallaces of the world set to work and a whiff of revolution is in the air again

Familiar stuff all of this, I’m sure. Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher and historian of science, coined the term “paradigm” for those “universally recognized scientific achievements that, for a time, provide model problems and solutions for a community of researchers” and professors have employed that term tirelessly when words like “model” or “pattern” or “program” just seem too darned plain. In contrast with the “mop-up” work that is the business of “normal science” operating within a given scientific paradigm (and who wouldn’t get excited about mop-up jobs) Kuhn identified the manner in which rapid change in science is compressed into its major revolutionary events.

For now my interest is not merely in the ways in which Kuhnian analysis can be applied to ecology. Rather, I am curious about how Kuhn’s model of paradigms and revolutions not only assists in developing our explicit expectations of what revolutionary ecology makes possible, but also in how ecological thought can double back and influence the way in which we might think about the history of science in general. The revolution I have especially in mind, as I will elaborate below, is that associated with a resurgence of interest in ecological dynamics: ideas about the structure, function of ecological systems and the way these systems respond to disturbance. Ecologists are developing these conceptions at a level of generality that makes their models epistemologically relevant to phenomena as diverse as lakes, financial markets, and the history of science itself. So a paradigmatic shift relating to theories of change in ecology allows ecology to reflect on the nature of all paradigmatic shifts including its own ones. In this sense there is an ecology of knowledge, and ecologists therefore can benefit from collaboration with, and insight from, non-traditional partners in the humanities, in particular, with those that reflect on stability and change in systems not typically of interest to ecologists.  Kuhn is just one such anomalous partner.  In return, ecology may return the favor by exporting insights gleaned from the study of nature, making them available for the behavior of other complex systems.

Read on here

About dublinsoil

Professor of Environmental Science
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