Original paper

Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 21, Issue 5, pp 647-666

First online:

Loop analysis and qualitative modeling: limitations and merits

  • James JustusAffiliated withPhilosophy Department, University of Texas Email author 

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Richard Levins has advocated the scientific merits of qualitative modeling throughout his career. He believed an excessive and uncritical focus on emulating the models used by physicists and maximizing quantitative precision was hindering biological theorizing in particular. Greater emphasis on qualitative properties of modeled systems would help counteract this tendency, and Levins subsequently developed one method of qualitative modeling, loop analysis, to study a wide variety of biological phenomena. Qualitative modeling has been criticized for being conceptually and methodologically problematic. As a clear example of a qualitative modeling method, loop analysis shows this criticism is indefensible. The method has, however, some serious limitations. This paper describes loop analysis, its limitations, and attempts to clarify the differences between quantitative and qualitative modeling, in content and objective. Loop analysis is but one of numerous types of qualitative analysis, so its limitations do not detract from the currently underappreciated and underdeveloped role qualitative modeling could have within science.


Complexity Idealization Loop analysis Perturbation Qualitative analysis Qualitative modeling Precision Sign digraph Stability