Community Ecology, Scale, and the Instability of the Stability Concept

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We examine the evolution of the concept of stability in community ecology, arguing that biologists have moved from an emphasis on biotic communities characterized by static balance, to one of dynamic balance (returning to equilibrium after perturbation), to the current concept of stability as persistence. Using Wimsatt's (1987) analysis of how false models can often lead to better ones, we argue that failed attempts to link complexity with stability have significant heuristic value for community ecologists. Nevertheless, we argue that, (A) because there is no common characteristic that stability terms presuppose, community ecology might be better served by abandoning the concept of stability and by employing instead specific terms such as 'persistence', 'resistance', and 'variability'. (B) The current emphasis (of stability terms) on persistence of species provides little basis for explaining possible mechanisms that might account for persistence.

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PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, v. 1992, no. 1, p. 184-199