“Models on the Runway: how do we make replicas of the world?”

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Marlene Zuk and Mike Travisano (July 2018)

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Abstract

Aodels are universal in science, both as theoretical formulations of reality and as model systems, representatives of other organisms. A recent paper on how scientists view the world divides our work into the mind, the lab, and the field, and suggests that models must not be conflated with reality. But in practice, these distinctions are blurred. For example, are flour beetles a model system for other insects, when their natural habitat is the same as the way they live in the lab? In addition, models can become restrictive when they are viewed as archetypes, making us over-generalize about the world and ignoring meaningful variation. The study of sexual conflict in insects illustrates some of the pitfalls of relying on Drosophila as a model system for sexual selection. Microbes can be used as models for populations and communities, and are also essential parts of larger biological systems. Finally, some models are not meant to replicate the world, but are worlds unto themselves in which diverse possibilities can be directly observed.