Models 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 overgeneralize 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 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.
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We are grateful to the participants in the Biological Interest Group at the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science and to the 2017 cohort of students in the graduate Foundations in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior course for discussion of many of the ideas presented here. Maria Rebolleda-Gomez, Mark McPeek, Maria Servedio, and Mark Borello made useful comments on the manuscript. M.Z. thanks the organizers of the 2016 Asilomar meeting of the American Society of Naturalists for the invitation to present a talk that was the basis of this paper. M.Z. and M.T. are supported by the University of Minnesota and National Science Foundation; M.T. is also supported by grants from the John Templeton Foundation.
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