Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 21, Issue 5, pp 623–645 | Cite as

Forty Years of ‘The Strategy’: Levins on Model Building and Idealization

  • Michael Weisberg


This paper is an interpretation and defense of Richard Levins’ “The Strategy of Model Building in Population Biology,” which has been extremely influential among biologists since its publication 40 years ago. In this article, Levins confronted some of the deepest philosophical issues surrounding modeling and theory construction. By way of interpretation, I discuss each of Levins’ major philosophical themes: the problem of complexity, the brute-force approach, the existence and consequence of tradeoffs, and robustness analysis. I argue that Levins’ article is concerned, at its core, with justifying the use of multiple, idealized models in population biology.


Richard Levins Tradeoffs Models Model building Idealization Robustness Population biology Theoretical ecology Complex systems 



This article developed out of several years’ reflection about Richard Levins’ methodological work, which Peter Godfrey-Smith first introduced me to at Stanford. I thank Peter, Brett Calcot, Marc Feldman, Patrick Forber, Richard Lewontin, Elisabeth Lloyd, John Mathewson, Jay Odenbaugh, Ken Reisman, Joan Roughgarden, Deena Skolnick Weisberg, Kim Sterelny, Angela Potochnik, Michael Strevens, Ward Watt, and Bill Wimsatt for many extremely stimulating discussions about Levins’ ideas. Thanks also to the attendees of the Greater Philadelphia Philosophy Consortium conference on “The Strategy” and Levins’ work, but special thanks go to my colleagues Zoltan Domotor, Gary Hatfield, and Scott Weinstein. All those who have worked with Dick Levins will know how stimulating and intellectually generous he is. He has answered innumerable questions and given very stimulating feedback. Along with other philosophers of biology writing about modeling and idealization, I owe him the utmost thanks for his kindness and support.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, B.V. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA

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