Nautilus

The Hidden Power Laws of Ecosystems

Here’s how to cause a ruckus: Ask a bunch of naturalists to simplify the world. We usually think in terms of a web of complicated interactions among animals, plants, microbes, earth, wind, and fire—what Darwin called “the entangled bank.” Reducing the bank’s complexity to broad generalizations can seem dishonest.

So when Tony Ives, a theoretical ecologist at the University of Wisconsin, prodded his colleagues at the 2013 meeting of the Ecological Society of America by calling for a vote on whether they ought to seek out general laws, it probably wasn’t surprising that two-thirds of the room voted no.1

Despite the skepticism, the kinds of general laws made possible by simplification have remarkable predictive powers. They could let us calculate how many species there are in ecosystems that are too big to sample thoroughly, or how many will be lost after habitat destruction.

Perhaps because I started in biology after training in physics, I’m an ecologist who finds beauty in these general laws. In physics, the last thing you’d worry about are differences between one molecule of a gas and another. No one has a personal favorite electron. The ideal gas law relating pressure, volume, and temperature holds equally well for

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