Models in context: biological and epistemological niches


A model organism’s value depends on its biological and epistemological contexts. The biological context of a model species comprises all aspects of its environment in the research setting that may influence its biological characteristics. In contrast, the epistemological context is not a matter of the organism’s surroundings, but rather of what question it is supposed to help answer, and the assumptions about its “representativeness” that warrant broader application of results from a unique model. The biological context for model organisms in research is highly controlled and standardized. This strategy has often been productive; however, it risks eliminating essential environmental information and biological mechanisms, including organism-environment interactions that help shape phenotypes. Considering biological context helps us avoid experimental designs that simplify potentially important dimensions out of existence. Clarifying the epistemological context, from background assumptions to the ultimate goal of the research, lets us assess how the research approach we choose—such as employing a particular model—may constrain the range or utility of possible answers. Looking at models in context can enrich understanding of both the history and the practice of biology: how models are selected and evolve to fit questions, and how they in turn influence the direction of future work.


Biological Sciences

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Book Chapter