Model organisms are not (theoretical) models

Arnon Levy, Adrian Currie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many biological investigations are organized around a small group of species, often referred to as 'model organisms', such as the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. The terms 'model' and 'modelling' also occur in biology in association with mathematical and mechanistic theorizing, as in the Lotka-Volterra model of predator-prey dynamics. Whatisthe relation between theoretical models and model organisms? Are these models in the same sense? We offer an account on which the two practices are shown to have different epistemic characters. Theoretical modelling is grounded in explicit and known analogies between model and target. By contrast, inferences from model organisms are empirical extrapolations. Often such extrapolation is based on shared ancestry, sometimes in conjunction with other empirical information. One implication is that such inferences are unique to biology, whereas theoretical models are common across many disciplines. Weclosebydiscussing the diversity ofuses to which model organisms are put, suggesting how these relate to our overall account.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)327-348
Number of pages22
JournalBritish Journal for the Philosophy of Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Jun 2015
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Philosophy
  • History
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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