20. On laws, maxims and constraints

Now that we have gathered all our data—Brassica rapa, Chorthippus brunneus, Pinus aristata and P. longaeva—it is time to turn to the analysis. The laws of science express the clarity of thought that produced them. Ours is therefore a two-pronged attack.

The first prong is our constant reference to the etymological fallacy. The fallacy gives evidence of misunderstandings, and of a lack of grasp of fundamental principles. This position is supported by Brown et al:

… in this paper we have been concerned only with basic science, with developing a conceptual framework for ecology based on first principles of biology, physics, and chemistry. (Brown et al, 2004).

We also again refer to Karsai & Kampis:

Scientific literacy doesn’t necessarily call for deep understanding of difficult concepts … but … does require a general understanding of basic scientific notions. (Karsai & Kampis, 2010).

Our second prong is perhaps best summarized by Murray:

I suggest that the resistance to the idea of laws in biology stems from the biologists’ misunderstanding of at least two terms, always used pejoratively by biologists - determinism and reductionism. Determinism is the idea that laws predict future events (I guess biologists get that idea because physicists often predict an eclipse of the sun or moon years into the future), and we are aware of the many stochastic features of the environments in which plants and animals reside. Yet, in physics, determinism refers to the prediction of events that should occur in given circumstances (i.e., initial conditions), often a controlled experiment (Feynman 1985, Lederman with Teresi 1993). Predictions of future eclipses are always accompanied by the unstated but understood assumption that a massive body does not pass through the solar system between now and the predicted event. The predictions of future events by physicists look good because that massive body has not passed through the solar system - yet.

Reductionism, for biologists, is the idea that biological phenomena will ultimately be explained by physical laws, a claim made by some misguided physicists and even philosophers. Reductionism for most physicists means synthesis, the development of ever more inclusive theories. For example, Maxwell joined the separate phenomena of electricity, magnetism, and light into a single theory. Maxwell’s theory was combined with quantum mechanics to form the theory of quantum electrodynamics. After Dirac proposed a relativistic theory of the electron, a more inclusive theory of quantum electrodynamics, relating electricity, light, magnetism, heat, matter, and relativity, was formulated by Schwinger, Tomonaga, and Feynman. This kind of theory reduction is often thought to be the goal of science. It certainly is of physics (Murray, 2000).

On the understanding that ‘determinism’ implies cogent prediction of selected future events; and that ‘reductionism’ means to unify and synthesize; then we recognize the distinction between intrinsic, extrinsic and their relations as follows:

  1. “Laws of biology” refer to intrinsic factors within populations. They state salient properties that at least some members must express.
  2. “Maxims of ecology” refer to extrinsic factors which affect all members in the population and as emanate from the environment.
  3. “Constraints” refer to those activities or events linking laws of biology to maxims of ecology.

Using the evidence we have gathered, we shall begin with our maxims of ecology.