Heuristic models as inspiration-for and falsifiers-of abstractions

Last month, I blogged about abstraction and lamented that abstract models are lacking in biology. Here, I want to return to this.

What isn’t lacking in biology — and what I also work on — is simulation and heuristic models. These can seem abstract in the colloquial sense but are not very abstract for a computer scientist. They are usually more idealizations than abstractions. And even if all I care about is abstract models — which I can reasonably be accused of at times — then heuristic models should still be important to me. Heuristics help abstractions in two ways: portfolios of heuristic models can inspire abstractions, and single heuristic models can falsify abstractions.

In this post, I want to briefly discuss these two uses for heuristic models. In the process, I will try to make it a bit more clear as to what I mean by a heuristic model. I will do this with metaphors. So I’ll produce a heuristic model of heuristic models. And I’ll use spatial structure and the evolution of cooperation as a case study.

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Double-entry bookkeeping and Galileo: abstraction vs idealization

Two weeks ago, I wrote a post on how abstract is not the opposite of empirical. In that post, I distinguished between the colloquial meaning of abstract and the ‘true’ meaning used by computer scientists. For me, abstraction is defined by multiple realizability. An abstract object can have many implementations. The concrete objects that implement an abstraction might differ from each other in various — potentially drastic — ways but if the implementations are ‘correct’ then the ways in which they differ are irrelevant to the conclusions drawn from the abstraction.

I contrasted this comp sci view with a colloquial sense that I attributed to David Basanta. I said this colloquial sense was just that an abstract model is ‘less detailed’.

In hindsight, I think this colloquial sense was a straw-man and doesn’t do justice to David’s view. It isn’t ignoring any detail that makes something colloquially abstract. Rather, it is ignoring ‘the right sort of’ detail in the ‘right sort of way’. It is about making an idealization meant to arrive at some essence of a (class of) object(s) or a process. And this idealization view of abstraction has a long pedigree.

In this post, I want to provide a semi-historical discussion of the the difference between (comp sci) abstraction vs idealization. I will focus on double-entry bookkeeping as a motivation. Now, this might not seem relevant to science, but for Galileo it was relevant. He expressed his views on (proto-)scientific abstraction by analogy to bookkeeping. And in expressing his view, he covered both abstraction and idealization. In the process, he introduced both good ideas and bad ones. They remain with us today.

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QBIOX: Distinguishing mathematical from verbal models in biology

There is a network at Oxford know as QBIOX that aims to connect researchers in the quantitative biosciences. They try to foster collaborations across the university and organize symposia where people from various departments can share their quantitative approaches to biology. Yesterday was my second or third time attending, and I wanted to share a brief overview of the three talks by Philip Maini, Edward Morrissey, and Heather Harrington. In the process, we’ll get to look at slime molds, colon crypts, neural crests, and glycolysis. And see modeling approaches ranging from ODEs to hybrid automata to STAN to algebraic systems biology. All of this will be in contrast to verbal theories.

Philip Maini started the evening off — and set the theme for my post — with a direct question as the title of his talk.

Does mathematics have anything to do with biology?

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Token vs type fitness and abstraction in evolutionary biology

There are only twenty-six letters in the English alphabet, and yet there are more than twenty-six letters in this sentence. How do we make sense of this?

Ever since I first started collaborating with David Basanta and Jacob Scott back in 2012/13, a certain tension about evolutionary games has been gnawing at me. A feeling that a couple of different concepts are being swept up under the rug of a single name.[1] This feeling became stronger during my time at Moffitt, especially as I pushed for operationalizing evolutionary games. The measured games that I was imagining were simply not the same sort of thing as the games implemented in agent-based models. Finally this past November, as we were actually measuring the games that cancer plays, a way to make the tension clear finally crystallized for me: the difference between reductive and effective games could be linked to two different conceptions of fitness.

This showed a new door for me: philosophers of biology have already done extensive conceptual analysis of different versions of fitness. Unfortunately, due to various time pressures, I could only peak through the keyhole before rushing out my first draft on the two conceptions of evolutionary games. In particular, I didn’t connect directly to the philosophy literature and just named the underlying views of fitness after the names I’ve been giving to the games: reductive fitness and effective fitness.

Now, after a third of a year busy teaching and revising other work, I finally had a chance to open that door and read some of the philosophy literature. This has provided me with a better vocabulary and clearer categorization of fitness concepts. Instead of defining reductive vs effective fitness, the distinction I was looking for is between token fitness and type fitness. And in this post, I want to discuss that distinction. I will synthesize some of the existing work in a way that is relevant to separating reductive vs. effective games. In the process, I will highlight some missing points in the current debates. I suspect this points have been overlooked because most of the philosophers of biology are focused more on macroscopic organisms instead of the microscopic systems that motivated me.[2]

Say what you will of birds and ornithology, but I am finding reading philosophy of biology to be extremely useful for doing ‘actual’ biology. I hope that you will, too.

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Ontology of player & evolutionary game in reductive vs effective theory

In my views of game theory, I largely follow Ariel Rubinstein: game theory is a set of fables. A collection of heuristic models that helps us structure how we make sense of and communicate about the world. Evolutionary game theory was born of classic game theory theory through a series of analogies. These analogies are either generalizations or restrictions of the theory depending on if you’re thinking about the stories or the mathematics. Given this heuristic genealogy of the field — and my enjoyment of heuristic models — I usually do not worry too much about what exactly certain ontic terms like strategy, player, or game really mean or refer to. I am usually happy to leave these terms ambiguous so that they can motivate different readers to have different interpretations and subsequently push for different models of different experiments. I think it is essential for heuristic theories to foster this diverse creativity. Anything goes.

However, not everyone agrees with Ariel Rubinstein and me; some people think that EGT isn’t “just” heuristics. In fact, more recently, I have also shifted some of my uses of EGT from heuristics to abductions. When this happens, it is no longer acceptable for researchers to be willy-nilly with fundamental objects of the theory: strategies, players, and games.

The biggest culprit is the player. In particular, a lot of confusion stems from saying that “cells are players”. In this post, I’d like to explore two of the possible positions on what constitutes players and evolutionary games.

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Multiplicative versus additive fitness and the limit of weak selection

Previously, I have discussed the importance of understanding how fitness is defined in a given model. So far, I’ve focused on how mathematically equivalent formulations can have different ontological commitments. In this post, I want to touch briefly on another concern: two different types of mathematical definitions of fitness. In particular, I will discuss additive fitness versus multiplicative fitness.[1] You often see the former in continuous time replicator dynamics and the latter in discrete time models.

In some ways, these versions are equivalent: there is a natural bijection between them through the exponential map or by taking the limit of infinitesimally small time-steps. A special case of more general Lie theory. But in practice, they are used differently in models. Implicitly changing which definition one uses throughout a model — without running back and forth through the isomorphism — can lead to silly mistakes. Thankfully, there is usually a quick fix for this in the limit of weak selection.

I suspect that this post is common knowledge. However, I didn’t have a quick reference to give to Pranav Warman, so I am writing this.
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Multiple realizability of replicator dynamics

Abstraction is my favorite part of mathematics. I find a certain beauty in seeing structures without their implementations, or structures that are preserved across various implementations. And although it seems possible to reason through analogy without (explicit) abstraction, I would not enjoy being restricted in such a way. In biology and medicine, however, I often find that one can get caught up in the concrete and particular. This makes it harder to remember that certain macro-dynamical properties can be abstracted and made independent of particular micro-dynamical implementations. In this post, I want to focus on a particular pet-peeve of mine: accounts of the replicator equation.

I will start with a brief philosophical detour through multiple realizability, and discuss the popular analogy of temperature. Then I will move on to the phenomenological definition of the replicator equation, and a few realizations. A particular target will be the statement I’ve been hearing too often recently: replicator dynamics are only true for a very large but fixed-size well-mixed population.

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Choosing units of size for populations of cells

Recently, I have been interacting more and more closely with experiment. This has put me in the fortunate position of balancing the design and analysis of both theoretical and experimental models. It is tempting to think of theorists as people that come up with ideas to explain an existing body of facts, and of mathematical modelers as people that try to explain (or represent) an existing experiment. But in healthy collaboration, theory and experiment should walk hand it hand. If experiments pose our problems and our mathematical models are our tools then my insistence on pairing tools and problems (instead of ‘picking the best tool for the problem’) means that we should be willing to deform both for better communication in the pair.

Evolutionary game theory — and many other mechanistic models in mathematical oncology and elsewhere — typically tracks population dynamics, and thus sets population size (or proportions within a population) as central variables. Most models think of the units of population as individual organisms; in this post, I’ll stick to the petri dish and focus on cells as the individual organisms. We then try to figure out properties of these individual cells and their interactions based on prior experiments or our biological intuitions. Experimentalists also often reason in terms of individual cells, making them seem like a natural communication tool. Unfortunately, experiments and measurements themselves are usually not about cells. They are either of properties that are only meaningful at the population level — like fitness — or indirect proxies for counts of individual cells — like PSA or intensity of fluorescence. This often makes counts of individual cells into an inferred theoretical quantity and not a direct observable. And if we are going to introduce an extra theoretical term then parsimony begs for a justification.

But what is so special about the number of cells? In this post, I want to question the reasons to focus on individual cells (at the expense of other choices) as the basic atoms of our ontology.

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Abusing numbers and the importance of type checking

What would you say if I told you that I could count to infinity on my hands? Infinity is large, and I have a typical number of fingers. Surely, I must be joking. Well, let me guide you through my process. Since you can’t see me right now, you will have to imagine my hands. When I hold out the thumb on my left hand, that’s one, and when I hold up the thumb and the index finger, that’s two. Actually, we should be more rigorous, since you are imagining my fingers, it actually isn’t one and two, but i and 2i. This is why they call them imaginary numbers.

Let’s continue the process of extending my (imaginary) fingers from the leftmost digits towards the right. When I hold out my whole left hand and the pinky, ring, and middle fingers on my right hand, I have reached 8i.

But this doesn’t look like what I promised. For the final step, we need to remember the geometric interpretation of complex numbers. Multiplying by i is the same thing as rotating counter-clockwise by 90 degrees in the plane. So, let’s rotate our number by 90 degrees and arrive at \infty.

I just counted to infinity on my hands.

Of course, I can’t stop at a joke. I need to overanalyze it. There is something for scientists to learn from the error that makes this joke. The disregard for the type of objects and jumping between two different — and usually incompatible — ways of interpreting the same symbol is something that scientists, both modelers and experimentalists, have to worry about it.

Rigorous proof

If you want an actually funny joke of this type then I recommend the image of a ‘rigorous proof’ above that was tweeted by Moshe Vardi. My writen version was inspired by a variant on this theme mentioned on Reddit by jagr2808.

I will focus this post on the use of types from my experience with stoichiometry in physics. Units in physics allow us to perform sanity checks after long derivations, imagine idealized experiments, and can even suggest refinements of theory. These are all features that evolutionary game theory, and mathematical biology more broadly, could benefit from. And something to keep in mind as clinicians, biologists, and modelers join forces this week during the 5th annual IMO Workshop at the Moffitt Cancer Center.

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Operationalizing replicator dynamics and partitioning fitness functions

As you know, dear regular reader, I have a rather uneasy relationship with reductionism, especially when doing mathematical modeling in biology. In mathematical oncology, for example, it seems that there is a hope that through our models we can bring a more rigorous mechanistic understanding of cancer, but at the same time there is the joke that given almost any microscopic mechanism there is an experimental paper in the oncology literature supporting it and another to contradict it. With such a tenuous and shaky web of beliefs justifying (or just hinting towards) our nearly arbitrary microdynamical assumptions, it seems unreasonable to ground our models in reductionist stories. At such a time of ontological crisis, I have an instinct to turn — much like many physicists did during a similar crisis at the start of the 20th century in their discipline — to operationalism. Let us build a convincing mathematical theory of cancer in the petri dish with as few considerations of things we can’t reliably measure and then see where to go from there. To give another analogy to physics in the late 1800s, let us work towards a thermodynamics of cancer and worry about its many possible statistical mechanics later.

This is especially important in applications of evolutionary game theory where assumptions abound. These assumptions aren’t just about modeling details like the treatments of space and stochasticity or approximations to them but about if there is even a game taking place or what would constitute a game-like interaction. However, to work toward an operationalist theory of games, we need experiments that beg for EGT explanations. There is a recent history of these sort of experiments in viruses and microbes (Lenski & Velicer, 2001; Crespi, 2001; Velicer, 2003; West et al., 2007; Ribeck & Lenski, 2014), slime molds (Strassmann & Queller, 2011) and yeast (Gore et al., 2009; Sanchez & Gore, 2013), but the start of these experiments in oncology by Archetti et al. (2015) is current events[1]. In the weeks since that paper, I’ve had a very useful reading group and fruitful discussions with Robert Vander Velde and Julian Xue about the experimental aspects of this work. This Monday, I spent most of the afternoon discussing similar experiments with Robert Noble who is visiting Moffitt from Montpellier this week.

In this post, I want to unlock some of this discussion from the confines of private emails and coffee chats. In particular, I will share my theorist’s cartoon understanding of the experiments in Archetti et al. (2015) and how they can help us build an operationalist approach to EGT but how they are not (yet) sufficient to demonstrate the authors’ central claim that neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer dynamics involve a public good.
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