Biology and Philosophy 26 (5):737-756 (2011)

Authors
John Matthewson
Massey University
Brett Calcott
University of Sydney
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
Keywords Philosophy   Evolutionary Biology   Philosophy of Biology
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DOI 10.1007/s10539-011-9277-z
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References found in this work BETA

Thinking About Mechanisms.Peter Machamer, Lindley Darden & Carl F. Craver - 2000 - Philosophy of Science 67 (1):1-25.
Causality: Models, Reasoning and Inference.Judea Pearl - 2000 - Cambridge University Press.
Explanation: A Mechanist Alternative.William Bechtel - 2005 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Biol and Biomed Sci 36 (2):421--441.
Explaining Science: A Cognitive Approach.Jeffrey S. Poland - 1988 - Philosophical Review 100 (4):653-656.

View all 21 references / Add more references

Citations of this work BETA

Three Kinds of New Mechanism.Arnon Levy - 2013 - Biology and Philosophy 28 (1):99-114.
Models Don’T Decompose That Way: A Holistic View of Idealized Models.Collin Rice - 2019 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 70 (1):179-208.
On Closing the Gap Between Philosophical Concepts and Their Usage in Scientific Practice: A Lesson From the Debate About Natural Selection as a Mechanism.Lucas J. Matthews - 2016 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 55:21-28.

View all 10 citations / Add more citations

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Natural Selection as a Population-Level Causal Process.Roberta L. Millstein - 2006 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 57 (4):627-653.

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