The theory of metabolic ecology predicts specific relationships among tree stem diameter, biomass, height, growth and mortality. As demographic rates are important to estimates of carbon fluxes in forests, this theory might offer important insights into the global carbon budget, and deserves careful assessment. We assembled data from 10 old-growth tropical forests encompassing censuses of 367 ha and > 1.7 million trees to test the theory's predictions. We also developed a set of alternative predictions that retained some assumptions of metabolic ecology while also considering how availability of a key limiting resource, light, changes with tree size. Our results show that there are no universal scaling relationships of growth or mortality with size among trees in tropical forests. Observed patterns were consistent with our alternative model in the one site where we had the data necessary to evaluate it, and were inconsistent with the predictions of metabolic ecology in all forests.