Some virtues of modeling with both hands

Webb distinguishes two endeavors she calls animal modeling and animat modeling and advocates for the former. I share her preference and point to additional virtues of modeling actual biological mechanisms (animal modeling). As Webb argues, animat modeling should be regarded as modeling of specific, but madeup, biological mechanisms. I contend that modeling made-up mechanisms in situations in which we have some knowledge of the actual mechanisms involved is modeling with one hand—the good one—tied behind one’s back.1 The hand that is used in animat modeling is constructing and evaluating models by whether they behave in the right way—do they exhibit the particular phenomenon one is trying to understand? The good hand that is disavowed seeks to use evidence about the mechanism employed in real living systems both for inspiration in designing the model and for evaluating the model. Denying oneself use of one’s good hand both limits one’s access to valuable evidence for evaluating a model and denies oneself access to a potent discovery strategy. Webb draws attention to one reason to employ the good hand—if models are to be relevant to biology (and not just characterize hypothetical mechanisms), then the component parts and operations specified in the model must in some way map onto those in actual biological organisms. Especially if one accepts the possibility of multiple realizations, then if one only uses behavior to evaluate the model one may well have described an alternative realization than that found in real organisms. To determine that one has modeled the actual realization, it is necessary to compare the proposed mechanism with the actual mechanism—does it..
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