Not just a theory--the utility of mathematical models in evolutionary biology

PLoS Biol. 2014 Dec 9;12(12):e1002017. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1002017. eCollection 2014 Dec.


Progress in science often begins with verbal hypotheses meant to explain why certain biological phenomena exist. An important purpose of mathematical models in evolutionary research, as in many other fields, is to act as “proof-of-concept” tests of the logic in verbal explanations, paralleling the way in which empirical data are used to test hypotheses. Because not all subfields of biology use mathematics for this purpose, misunderstandings of the function of proof-of-concept modeling are common. In the hope of facilitating communication, we discuss the role of proof-of-concept modeling in evolutionary biology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution*
  • Logic
  • Models, Biological*
  • Species Specificity

Grant support

MRS was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) grants DEB-0919018 and DEB-1255777, and CF and JV were supported by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent), NSF EF-0423641. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.