Section IV. Re-envisioning Nature; Re-envisioning Science

Track 5: Ecologies, Becoming, Networks, and Value
Robert Ulanowitz and Elizabeth McDuffie, chairs

Session 1

Process Ecology: Philosophy Passes into Praxis

Robert E. Ulanowicz

Department of Biology

University of Florida;

University of Maryland

Center for Environmental Science


Life as process is dimensionally inconsistent with the notion of homogeneous objects moving according to the laws of mechanics. Living systems and collections of homogeneous entities are like apples and oranges. Furthermore, the logic behind the laws of physics applies only to homogeneous collections of objects and is inadequate to encompass highly heterogeneous systems, such as biological processes. Because all universal physical laws are reversible, they are incapable of imparting non-randomness to random inputs. Contingencies enter real systems via the boundary constraints, and such drivers span the gamut of arbitrariness from the unique to the nearly determinate. Finally, the relatively small possible combinations of the fundamental laws means that they remain insufficient to determine fully the immense number of combinations of complex behaviors possible in even mildly heterogeneous biotic systems. One concludes, therefore, that living systems are commensurate only with combinations of other heterogeneous processes.


The properties that define living systems owe primarily to a particular subset of combined processes – namely, those that are fully mutualistic, or autocatalytic. Autocatalytic systems exert selection upon their own constituents and give rise to a centripetal pull that gathers resources and energy from their surroundings. The universal laws of physics do constrain what can happen, but remain unable to determine specific biological outcomes. It is configurations of processes that build in indeterminate fashion upon the physical substrate that impart form to all living entities. Those configurations can be represented in terms of networks – an identification that allows one to quantify the relationship between constraint and freedom within any living ensemble. Ecological network analysis, therefore, allows the testing of hypotheses generated by process thinking. Thus does philosophy transition into praxis, and in the process gives rise to a metaphysics of “process ecology” that differs radically from the conventional foundations that have guided science over the past three centuries.


Session 2

Multi-Level Explanation in Ecology: Reduction, Holism, and Downward Causation

James Dow

Department of Philosophy

Hendrix College


In On the Origin of Species, Darwin (1859, Ch. 3) describes several cases of ecological complexity and considers whether phenomena at the community, population, and organismal level are a matter of chance rather than definite laws. For instance, it has been argued that increases in biodiversity enable increased resilience in ecosystems. Assessing such claims are important for the development of an ecological civilization, in particular for connecting claims in human ecology, sustainability, and study of ecosystems independent of human intervention. How should we understand such high-level generalizations in ecology? What are the metaphysical implications of ecology for debates about reductionism about causation, explanation, and processes? After I outline debates about reduction of causation, explanation, and processes in contemporary philosophy of science broadly, I turn to the development of a non-reductionist account of multilevel explanation in ecosystems via mechanism schemata that focuses on the pervasiveness of downward causation in ecosystems. The import of this account for The Third Window is that we can maintain a non-reductionist account of explanation in ecology. However, at the same time we can still preserve the idea that life science aims at the positing of mechanisms and that high level generalizations do not open up causal holes in nature. In addition, I will unfold the significance of a multilevel account of mechanisms of ecosystems for the development of a holistic land ethic.



Session 3

Ecology as a new world-view: The Relational Perspective

John Kineman

Senior Research Scientist
University of Colorado defines Ecology as: “the branch of biology dealing with the relations and interactions between organisms and their environment, including other organisms.” It is an excellent definition because it distinguishes relations and interactions. But do we understand that distinction and what it means to ecology and science in general?

The mathematical biologist Dr. Robert Rosen developed a relational theory of living systems. Thus we have a more precise idea of what “relations” are as opposed to “interactions”. However, these ideas are not well-known, nor fully developed at present. What is becoming clear is that a fully relational view of Ecology would likely imply a new foundation for all of science, even physical science. Rosen predicted this profound result over 50 years ago, that biology will change physics. A fully relational view of nature called “R-theory is being developed as a continuation of Rosen’s work and a new ecological view of nature.


Session 4

Regenerative Capitalism: Building an Economic Engine for Ecological Civilization

Dr. Sally Goerner

Capital Institute, Greenwich, CT


We face systemic problems – social, economic, political, and environmental ones all wound up together. Right now most activists put the environmental crisis at the center of “sustainability”, but deep down most people know that the root cause of all unsustainability is an economic ideology (neoliberalism) that places profit above the health of people and planet. Until we can articulate a viable alternative to this system, we will be tinkering around the edges, creating palliative remedies to a deeper self-destructive drive. Under good news, massive socio-economic frustration is already driving the development of “New Economy” solutions to neoliberal problems cropping up from banking and business to politics and urban planning. The task now is to develop a commonsense narrative and sound systemic framework that binds the facets of this broader transformation together, and shows why this new economy – which I will call Regenerative Capitalism – works better than corporate neoliberalism.

This talk explores how the laws of systemic health and development emerging from the study of flow networks can provide the narrative we need. I will show how the same study of energy-flow networks ecologists have long used to understand ecosystem health can also reveal the deep principles and patterns needed to generate durably vibrant economies as well. I also explain how we can use nature’s designs to create effective, empirical measures of systemic socioeconomic health which we can use to guide our steps. The result is a clear, commonsense path to creating Regenerative economies designed to constantly revitalize their society while simultaneously supporting the well-being of people, planet, and profits.

Join us for a lively debate about how we can generate the kind of lasting vitality and inclusive prosperity most people wish for, but few believe is possible.


Session 5

Nature Knowledge is the new Ecology

Catherine Kleier

Department of Biology

Regis University, Colorado

Respondent: Kristin Ritzau, Claremont School of Theology


Of course nature knowledge has been important since the dawn of humanity. Yet, ecology in colleges and universities is more about theories and data than it is about the natural world. While ecological problems like climate change, invasive species, habitat loss, and water shortages are abstract and overwhelming for any one person to solve, local, place based, nature knowledge is easily accessible to all peoples of all ages. By spending time in a local place, observing, drawing, and journaling, one cultivates nature knowledge. I believe no one teaches students to do this anymore, and ecologists must model this behavior in ecological laboratories. Once some degree of nature knowledge is present, connections between protection and local nature make larger issues appear surmountable. Such protection may include preserving habitat or increasing habitat so that organisms have spaces to go when the climate changes. Protection may also include corridors and migration pathways to provide space for range changes. Planting trees and gardens to provide habitat and to reduce carbon dioxide offers another protection mechanism. When presented in ways that will assist local nature, big ecological problems become a solvable issue, a new paradigm.


Session 6

Species Are as Species Do: What a Process-Based Ontology Means for Ecology and Evolution

Jeffrey A. Lockwood

Natural Sciences and Humanities

University of Wyoming

Respondent: John Hainze, Yale University

The ‘species problem’ in the philosophy of biology concerns the nature of species. Various solutions have been proposed, including arguments that species are sets, classes, natural kinds, individuals, and homeostatic property clusters. These proposals parallel debates in ecology as to the ontology and metaphysics of populations, communities and ecosystems. A new solution—that species are processes—is proposed and defended, based on Robert Ulanowicz’s metaphysics of process ecology. As with ecological systems, species can be understood as emergent, autocatalytic systems with propensities for centripetality and mutuality in the course of dynamically balancing ascendency (order and persistence) and overhead (randomness and change). The species-as-processes perspective accords with the Ulanowicz’s postulates of process ecology and it can be accommodated by existing theories of species—particularly in a reframing of Richard Boyd’s metaphysics such that species are homeostatic process clusters. Rather than contending that process based metaphysics is the only, best or true account of species, a pluralist-realist approach is advocated based on the pragmatic principles that are reflected in modern view of species and ecology. If species are understood to be comprised of processes and to be emergent processes themselves, there are important implications for the life sciences, including: animal models in medical and environmental studies, conservation biology, extinction, biodiversity, restoration ecology, and evolutionary biology.

Session 7



Session 8


Facilitator: Elizabeth McDuffie, Claremont School of Theology

Process Ecology: Philosophy Passes into Praxis by Robert E. Ulanowicz