Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 21, Issue 5, pp 703–724 | Cite as

On the dangers of making scientific models ontologically independent: taking Richard Levins’ warnings seriously

  • Rasmus Grønfeldt WintherEmail author
Original Paper


Levins and Lewontin have contributed significantly to our philosophical understanding of the structures, processes, and purposes of biological mathematical theorizing and modeling. Here I explore their separate and joint pleas to avoid making abstract and ideal scientific models ontologically independent by confusing or conflating our scientific models and the world. I differentiate two views of theorizing and modeling, orthodox and dialectical, in order to examine Levins and Lewontin’s, among others, advocacy of the latter view. I compare the positions of these two views with respect to four points regarding ontological assumptions: (1) the origin of ontological assumptions, (2) the relation of such assumptions to the formal models of the same theory, (3) their use in integrating and negotiating different formal models of distinct theories, and (4) their employment in explanatory activity. Dialectical is here used in both its Hegelian–Marxist sense of opposition and tension between alternative positions and in its Platonic sense of dialogue between advocates of distinct theories. I investigate three case studies, from Levins and Lewontin as well as from a recent paper of mine, that show the relevance and power of the dialectical understanding of theorizing and modeling.


Dialectics Ecology Evolutionary genetics Richard Levins Models Modeling Theory Ontological assumptions Ontology 



I am particularly grateful to Michael Weisberg for his comments and advice on this paper and for editing this issue of Biology and Philosophy. I thank Eduardo García Ramírez, Richard Levins, Fabricio Guerrero McManus, Sergio Martínez, Susan Oyama, Faviola Rivera Castro, Marie Svarre Nielsen, David Teira, Francisco Vergara-Silva, and Michael Wade for extremely useful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. I appreciate numerous discussions with Claus Emmeche, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Paul Griffiths, Elisabeth Lloyd, and Robert A. Wilson concerning issues pertinent to this paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Instituto de Investigaciones FilosóficasUniversidad Nacional Autónoma de MéxicoCoyoacánMéxico

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