Optimality modelling in the real world
In a recent paper, Potochnik (Biol Philos 24(2):183–197, 2009 ) analyses some uses of optimality modelling in light of the anti-adaptationism criticism. She distinguishes two broad classes of such uses (weak and strong) on the basis of assumptions held by biologists about the role and the importance of natural selection. This is an interesting proposal that could help in the epistemological characterisation of some biological practices. However, Potochnik’s distinction also rests on the assumption that all optimality modelling represent the selection dynamic involved in the system of phenomena being considered. Since this assumption does not hold for models belonging to optimal foraging theory (OFT)—one of behavioural ecology’s important modelling traditions—Potochnik’s proposal has to be critically reappraised. In this paper, we briefly discuss what is optimality modelling and what it means for a model to represent a dynamic of selection or of evolution. Then, we demonstrate that OFT modelling is unable to represent either past or contemporary selection dynamics. In order to make this point, we carefully delineate the theory’s rationale. This allows us to identify and analyse the assumptions on which the theory is built, and to circumscribe precisely the role that natural selection plays in it. Next, we show that the distinction of weak and strong uses of optimality modelling is seriously weakened when OFT modelling is taken into account. More precisely, the distinction is either irrelevant (if the assumption that selection dynamics are represented in all optimality modelling is held) or of a modest utility (if the assumption is dropped). However, we suggest that Potochnik’s original proposal could be saved, and that it even constitutes a tool to appraise the marks left in the literature by the evolution of optimality modelling practices in the last four decades, provided that it is made into a tripartite distinction.