Ecological Orbits: How Planets Move and Populations Grow

by Lev Ginzburg and Mark Colyvan

Department of Ecology and Evolution
Stony Brook University
Stony Brook, New York, USA,


Department of Philosophy
University of Sydney
Sydney, NSW, Australia

Publication Details

Publisher: Oxford University Press, New York
Publication Date: April 2004
Pages: xvi + 168
ISBN: 019516816X (hardcover)
Artwork by Amy Dunham

You can purchase a copy of this book from Oxford University Press or from Amazon.


The main focus of the book is the presentation of the 'inertial' view of population growth. This view provides a rather simple model for complex population dynamics, and is achieved at the level of the single species without invoking species interactions. An important part of this account is the maternal effect. Investment of mothers in the quality of their daughters makes the rate of reproduction of the current generation depend not only on the current environment, but also on the environment experienced by the previous generation.

The inertial view of population growth is a significant departure from traditional ecological theory, which has been developing within the Lotka-Volterra framework for 75 years. The view advanced in this book focuses attention away from the growth rate as the major variable responding to the environment, and towards 'acceleration', or the rate of change of the growth rate between consecutive generations. If the inertial view of population growth proves correct, a great deal of current theory on population growth will need to be rethought and revised.


1. On earth as it is in the heavens
2. Does ecology have laws?
3. Equilibrium and accelerated death
4. The maternal effect hypothesis
5. Predator-prey interactions and the period of cycling
6. Inertial growth
7. Practical consequences
8. Shadows on the wall

Awards and Recognition

Advance Praise and Quotes from Reviews

"Ecological Orbits is a wonderfully well written book that could revolutionize population biology. It takes the metabolism and growth of individuals as fundamental to understanding population size in place of the standard model of population ecology which treats individuals as biological ciphers whose reproduction is independent of their actual biology. Every ecologist and evolutionist needs to give it serious thought."
Richard Lewontin, Harvard University

"Engagingly written, and unique in perspective. Must reading for anyone seriously interested in theoretical ecology."
Simon Levin, Princeton University

"This is a delightful little book. I recommend it highly as a true pleasure to read"
Serge Luryi, Stony Brook University

"The authors analogy to physic's conceptual evolution is an entertaining and effective tool for presenting their key argument. Population dynamics are likely to be significantly influenced by their inertial properties. The book is very well written and generally entertaining to read. Equations are kept to a minimum, without ignoring them completely. Many readers should appreciate the interspersion of historical context and occasional anecdote, mixed with a steady undercurrent of philosophical discourse. This mix should widen the audience to include biologists and environmental scientists, with a few philosophy of science students thrown in."
Timothy Mousseau, University of South Carolina

"Many ecologists suffer from physics envy and this book should be an excellent 'medicine' against this disease. Ginzburg and Colyvan do a great job of showing that physics and biology are not as different, at least from the point of view of philosophy of science, as some would portray. I found the discussion what laws of nature are very useful. I think that this book will be a significant influence on how ecologists think about their science."
Peter Turchin, University of Connecticut

"Ecological Orbits may well turn out to mark [...] a transition from what was considered unthinkable – namely a rigorous and nontrivial theory of population dynamics akin to a law of nature – to a real scientific achievement."
Gunter Wagner, Yale University

Reviews and Critical Notices

Related Articles


The authors (Mark left, Lev right) in New York in December 2003.

To: Mark's Homepage | Mark's Research Page