There’s a lot of discussion in the literature about the question, “Do ecology and evolutionary biology have scientific laws?” One pragmatic (and slightly flippant) answer to that question is, “Yes, of course they do, except sometimes they’re called ‘rules’ rather than ‘laws’: Kleiber’s law, Dollo’s law, Bergmann’s rule…” That is, ecology and evolutionary biology do in fact have many empirical claims that everyone calls “laws” or “rules”. So whatever you think about the existence and nature of ecological and evolutionary laws in theory, you can’t really ignore the fact that, in practice, there is a thing called “Kleiber’s law”, a thing called “Dollo’s law”, etc.
Or to be more precise, there’s an empirical claim called “Kleiber’s law”, an empirical claim called “Dollo’s law”, etc. But those claims might be false! Or, you know, usually false, or sometimes false, or false in some circumstances. In which case, “law” (or “rule”) seems like a misnomer. At a minimum, surely any empirical claim that deserves to be called a “law” had better be true! (or true enough, or true in a sufficiently wide range of circumstances, or etc.)
Further, there might be disagreement over whether some purported “law” or “rule” is actually true (or true enough, or etc.). One might think this couldn’t possibly be the case, at least not for claims on which there’s a fair bit of data. After all, isn’t science supposed to be data-driven? To which, oh you sweet innocent child. 🙂
So, I got to wondering: how many of the things that ecologists and evolutionary biologists refer to as “laws” or “rules” are widely agreed to be true enough to deserve the title “law” or “rule”? That is, I’m interested in the truth of these claims–but I’m also interested in what ecologists and evolutionary biologists think about the truth of these claims. Hence this poll!
The poll below lists a bunch of ecological and evolutionary claims commonly referred to as “laws” or “rules” (or something else, in a few cases). Apologies if I omitted your favorite named rule/law. I didn’t want the poll to get unwieldy, so I restricted attention to what I felt like were the most widely familiar laws/rules. Also, I deliberately restricted attention to purely empirical rules/laws, which is why the competitive exclusion principle and Hamilton’s rule aren’t listed. For each named rule/law, please indicate on a 3 point numerical scale whether or not you think it’s true (or true enough) to be called a law/rule (3), rarely/never true (1), or somewhere in the middle (2). If you have no opinion, just skip the question. But if you have a tentative opinion please indicate it; this isn’t a poll only of confident experts. There’s a question at the end for you to indicate your level of expertise regarding each law/rule.
p.s. You thought I was going to miss the opportunity to make an “I fought the law” reference didn’t you? YOU THOUGHT WRONG. Here are four of them! Plus a bonus poll question. 🙂