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


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.

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  1. 1.

    It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the related views found in the work of a number of other scholars who also emphasize the importance both of ontological components in our theories and of the process of theorizing as involving an imposition onto nature of those components. See, e.g., Marx Das Kapital v. 1 (Tucker 1978, pp. 320–321); Dewey 1929/1958, 1938 (e.g., 1929/1958, pp. 29–30); Kuhn 1970; Oyama 1985 (e.g., pp. 62–63); Smith 1996 (e.g., pp. 49–50) and Clapin 2002 (e.g., part 5 “On Smith,” pp. 219–292).

  2. 2.

    One similarity between the two views is that they both accept that the world is categorically complex.

  3. 3.

    There is some “slop” between the two. For instance, the same formalism can be consistent with different (though almost certainly overlapping) sets of ontological assumptions. I suspect, though, that this is much more common in heavily formalized sciences—especially theoretical physics—than in biology. One of the central unresolved questions of quantum mechanics concerns the interpretation of theory. To what sorts of objects and processes does theory refer? Here, multiple radically different ontological interpretations are consistent with the same formal framework of quantum mechanics. In biology, however, I think that there is a much closer link between formalism and actual (as well as intended) ontological assumptions/ontological interpretation. I am grateful to Marie Svarre Nielsen for discussions on this matter.

  4. 4.

    I gratefully acknowledge discussions with Faviola Rivera Castro on these points.

  5. 5.

    See also, e.g., Cartwright (1983, 1999) and Wimsatt (1987).

  6. 6.

    The word “logos” is also derived from the same Indo-European root “leg-”. Oxford English Dictionary.

  7. 7.

    This essay originally appeared in Synthese in 1980 (43) and was subsequently reprinted as Chapter 6 of their 1985 book.

  8. 8.

    Levins and Lewontin mention one more: stochasticity and statistics have been conflated. I will not explore this confusion here.

  9. 9.

    Their distinction between these terms is admittedly different from mine.

  10. 10.

    Particularly on the latter point, see Weisberg (2003); see also Odenbaugh (2007).

  11. 11.

    On robust theorems, Levins writes: “we attempt to treat the same problem with several alternative models each with different simplifications but with a common biological assumption. Then, if these models, despite their different assumptions, lead to similar results we have what we can call a robust theorem which is relatively free of the details of the model. Hence our truth is the intersection of independent lies” (Levins 1966, p. 423). For an analysis of Levins’ notion of robustness, see Wimsatt (1981) and Weisberg (2006).

  12. 12.

    Recall that their “Dialectics and Reductionism in Ecology” first appeared in 1980.

  13. 13.

    See Levins (1966, p. 431).

  14. 14.

    Wade (1992) also provides a useful discussion of precisely these points when he analyzes Fisher’s metaphor of ANOVA methodology and factorial design as a “questionnaire to Nature” (p. 42) which, for a variety of technical reasons including the statistical power of various tests, make one “more likely to discover main effects than... interactions” (p. 43). Now, if the questionnaire is biased in this manner, then users of the questionnaire will, upon receiving answers to their questions, illegitimately attribute properties (e.g., strong main causal effects) to nature that are actually outcomes and artifacts of statistical methodology.

  15. 15.

    There are clear exceptions to this. Neyman et al. (1956) provides a sophisticated account of the complex interaction among theory, experiments, statistics, and data.

  16. 16.

    Furthermore, Lewontin articulates this critique in more detail in his “The Analysis of Variance and the Analysis of Causes” [first published by Lewontin (1974); subsequently appeared as Chapter 4 in Levins and Lewontin (1985)], as well as in his 1975 paper co-authored with Marcus Feldman, “The Heritability Hang-Up.”

  17. 17.

    The title of that chapter is “The Genome as the Unit of Selection.”

  18. 18.

    Lewontin and White (1960); see also Lewontin and Kojima (1960).

  19. 19.

    Wade (pers. comm., January 27, 2006) makes this point in a clear manner: “The selection coefficients experienced by particular genes become functions of the frequencies of alleles at other genes or the frequencies of genotypes at other genes when there is epistasis. If you are tracking genotypes, then you might not try bothering to calculate the marginal fitnesses of alleles at specific genes—if you did, you would find that they are functions of allele or genotype frequencies at other loci.”

  20. 20.

    Winther (2006). For further details please see that article.

  21. 21.

    Turelli (1994).

  22. 22.

    Frank (1997, 1998).

  23. 23.

    See Frank (1998).

  24. 24.

    I am grateful to my student, Fabrizzio Guerrero McManus, for pointing this out to me.

  25. 25.

    Recent work in philosophy of science concerning social epistemology could be useful for further development of the ideas expressed in this paper. See, for example, Longino (1993, 2002); Hacking (2002) and Lloyd (2005).


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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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Winther, R.G. On the dangers of making scientific models ontologically independent: taking Richard Levins’ warnings seriously. Biol Philos 21, 703–724 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-006-9053-7

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