What makes Darwinian hydrology "darwinian"? Asking a different kind of question about landscapes

C. Harman, P. A. Troch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

60 Scopus citations


There have been repeated calls for a Darwinian approach to hydrologic science, or for a synthesis of Darwinian and Newtonian approaches, to deepen understanding of the hydrologic system in the larger landscape context, and so develop a better basis for predictions now and in an uncertain future. But what exactly makes a Darwinian approach to hydrology "Darwinian"? While there have now been a number of discussions of Darwinian approaches, many referencing Harte (2002), the term is potentially a source of confusion because its connections to Darwin remain allusive rather than explicit. Here we suggest that the Darwinian approach to hydrology follows the example of Charles Darwin by focusing attention on the patterns of variation in populations and seeking hypotheses that explain these patterns in terms of the mechanisms and conditions that determine their historical development. These hypotheses do not simply catalog patterns or predict them statistically - they connect the present structure with processes operating in the past. Nor are they explanations presented without independent evidence or critical analysis - Darwin's hypotheses about the mechanisms underlying present-day variation could be independently tested and validated. With a Darwinian framework in mind, it is easy to see that a great deal of hydrologic research has already been done that contributes to a Darwinian hydrology - whether deliberately or not. We discuss some practical and philosophical issues with this approach to hydrologic science: how are explanatory hypotheses generated? What constitutes a good hypothesis? How are hypotheses tested? "Historical" sciences - including paleohydrology - have long grappled with these questions, as must a Darwinian hydrologic science. We can draw on Darwin's own example for some answers, though there are ongoing debates about the philosophical nature of his methods and reasoning. Darwin used a range of methods of historical reasoning to develop explanatory hypotheses: extrapolating mechanisms, space for time substitution, and looking for signatures of history. Some of these are already in use, while others are not and could be used to develop new insights. He sought explanatory hypotheses that intelligibly unified disparate facts, were testable against evidence, and had fertile implications for further research. He provided evidence to support his hypotheses by deducing corollary conditions ("if explanation A is true, then B will also be true") and comparing these to observations. While a synthesis of the Darwinian and Newtonian approaches remains a goal, the Darwinian approach to hydrologic science has significant value of its own. The Darwinian hydrology that has been conducted already has not been coordinated or linked into a general body of theory and knowledge, but the time is coming when this will be possible.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)417-433
Number of pages17
JournalHydrology and Earth System Sciences
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 4 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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