Evol Ecol Res 3: 91-105 (2001)     Full PDF if your library subscribes.

The good, the bad and the reified

L.B. Slobodkin

Department of Ecology and Evolution, State University of New York at Stony Brook, Stony Brook, NY 11794-5245, USA

e-mail: bzll@life.bio.sunysb.edu


In their search for generalizations, ecologists have postulated many concepts and processes. Some of these have become reified. Reification consists of accepting a designation as if it has empirical meaning when, in fact, its existence has either never been tested or it has been found empty. The distinction between a hypothesis and a reification is that hypotheses are created to be tested and replaced, whereas a reification is taken as an untestable axiom. When a research area loses its dynamism, its hypotheses become reifications. Conversely, if reifications are permitted to accumulate, they can destroy the dynamism of a research area. If a science retains an excess number of reifications, it stagnates and ultimately loses its status as a science. Reified concepts include the logistic equation (together with the theoretical constructs based on it), the idea of constant ecological efficiency, the concept of an integrated community, and certain aspects of species diversity, particularly in the context ‘good’, ‘bad’ and alien species.

 Also, there are reified metaphors, which, if taken seriously, can be obfuscatory. For example, natural communities have been likened to aeroplanes, and each species to parts of an aeroplane. A metaphor is then constructed in which the removal of a species from a community is likened to the removal of an aeroplane part. Just as removal of one or more parts will cause the plane to crash, the metaphor asserts that the removal of one too many species from a community will result in collapse of the community. On closer examination, this is seen as empty. There is no ‘aeroplane’.

 Also, the designation of certain kinds of species as good or bad – specifically, alien species are bad and ‘native’ species are good – is empty and misleading. While invasive species, in some cases, actually do damage native species, the generalization that invaders will reduce species diversity is not well founded.

 Fields that are required to focus on research defined by social needs, like ecology and medicine, rather than on scientific capabilities, like astronomy and hydrodynamics, generate reifications. Reifications are dangerous to the health of a research area and should be avoided. Only vigorous extirpation of reifications permits a field to preserve scientific integrity.

Keywords: alien species, community aeroplane, ecological efficiency, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ species, logistic equation, reification.

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