Monday, October 18, 2010

Workshop: The Role of Mathematics in Science

Readers of this blog in the Toronto area may want to check out a workshop this Friday at the University of Toronto, IHPST. It is on the role of mathematics in science and the speakers are me, Margaret Morrison (Toronto), Steven French (Leeds), Alex Koo (Toronto) and Alan Baker (Swarthmore). The program is online here.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Mandelbrot (1924-2010)

The New York Times obituary gives a useful overview of his career and contributions to applications.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Okasha Takes On The Inclusive Fitness Controversy

In a helpful commentary in the current issue of Nature Samir Okasha summarizes the recent dispute about inclusive fitness. In an article from earlier this year E. O. Wilson and two collaborators argued that inclusive fitness (or kin selection) was dispensable from an explanation of altruistic behavior. For my purposes what is most interesting about this debate is that the Wilson argument depends on an alternative mathematical treatment which seems to get rid of the need for anything to track inclusive fitness. As a result, inclusive fitness is seen merely as a book-keeping device with no further explanatory significance.

Okasha suggests that the dispute is overblown and that each of the competing camps should recognize that a divergence in mathematical treatment need not signal any underlying disagreement. As he puts it at one point
Much of the current antagonism could easily be resolved — for example, by researchers situating their work clearly in relation to existing literature; using existing terminology, conceptual frameworks and taxonomic schemes unless there is good reason to invent new ones; and avoiding unjustified claims of novelty or of the superiority of one perspective over another.

It is strange that such basic good practice is being flouted. The existence of equivalent formulations of a theory, or of alternative modelling approaches, does not usually lead to rival camps in science. The Lagrangian and Hamiltonian formulations of classical mechanics, for example, or the wave and matrix formulations of quantum mechanics, tend to be useful for tackling different problems, and physicists switch freely between them.
This point is right as far as it goes, but my impression is that some biologists and philosophers of biology over-interpret the concept of fitness. If Wilson et. al. are correct, then there is simply no need to believe that inclusive fitness tracks any real feature of biological systems. And this interpretative result would be significant for our understanding of altruism and natural selection more generally.