Mechanistic models of population-level phenomena

Biology and Philosophy 26 (5):737-756 (2011)
Abstract
This paper is about mechanisms and models, and how they interact. In part, it is a response to recent discussion in philosophy of biology regarding whether natural selection is a mechanism. We suggest that this debate is indicative of a more general problem that occurs when scientists produce mechanistic models of populations and their behaviour. We can make sense of claims that there are mechanisms that drive population-level phenomena such as macroeconomics, natural selection, ecology, and epidemiology. But talk of mechanisms and mechanistic explanation evokes objects with well-defined and localisable parts which interact in discrete ways, while models of populations include parts and interactions that are neither local nor discrete in any actual populations. This apparent tension can be resolved by carefully distinguishing between the properties of a model and those of the system it represents. To this end, we provide an analysis that recognises the flexible relationship between a mechanistic model and its target system. In turn, this reveals a surprising feature of mechanistic representation and explanation: it can occur even when there is a mismatch between the mechanism of the model and that of its target. Our analysis reframes the debate, providing an alternative way to interpret scientists’ mechanism-talk , which initially motivated the issue. We suggest that the relevant question is not whether any population-level phenomenon such as natural selection is a mechanism, but whether it can be usefully modelled as though it were a particular type of mechanism
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References found in this work BETA
William Bechtel (2005). Explanation: A Mechanist Alternative. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biol and Biomed Sci 36 (2):421--441.
Ronald N. Giere (2001). The Nature and Function of Models. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24 (6):1060-1060.
Stuart Glennan (2002). Rethinking Mechanistic Explanation. Proceedings of the Philosophy of Science Association 2002 (3):S342-353.
Stuart Glennan (2005). Modeling Mechanisms. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C 36 (2):443-464.

View all 16 references

Citations of this work BETA
Arnon Levy (2013). Three Kinds of New Mechanism. Biology and Philosophy 28 (1):99-114.
Similar books and articles
Robert A. Skipper & Roberta L. Millstein (2005). Thinking About Evolutionary Mechanisms: Natural Selection. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 36 (2):327-347.
Roberta L. Millstein (2006). Natural Selection as a Population-Level Causal Process. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 57 (4):627-653.
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