A Critical Overview of Biological Functions

Dordrecht: Springer (2016)
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This book is a critical survey of and guidebook to the literature on biological functions. It ties in with current debates and developments, and at the same time, it looks back on the state of discourse in naturalized teleology prior to the 1970s. It also presents three significant new proposals. First, it describes the generalized selected effects theory, which is one version of the selected effects theory, maintaining that the function of a trait consists in the activity that led to its differential persistence or reproduction in a population, and not merely its differential reproduction. Secondly, it advances “within-discipline pluralism” (as opposed to between-discipline pluralism) a new form of function pluralism, which emphasizes the coexistence of function concepts within diverse biological sub-disciplines. Lastly, it provides a critical assessment of recent alternatives to the selected effects theory of function, namely, the weak etiological theory and the systems-theoretic theory. The book argues that, to the extent that functions purport to offer causal explanations for the existence of a trait, there are no viable alternatives to the selected effects view. The debate about biological functions is still as relevant and important to biology and philosophy as it ever was. Recent controversies surrounding the ENCODE Project Consortium in genetics, the nature of psychiatric classification, and the value of ecological restoration, all point to the continuing relevance to biology of philosophical discussion about the nature of functions. In philosophy, ongoing debates about the nature of biological information, intentionality, health and disease, mechanism, and even biological trait classification, are closely related to debates about biological functions.



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Function and Fitness

This chapter focuses on the fitness-contribution theory of function, which holds, roughly, that the function of a trait consists in its typical contribution to the fitness of the organisms that possess it. I begin by surveying several different theories within this family, and I show why any plausib... see more

Goals and Functions

Contemporary philosophical debates about biological function started in the early 1970s, and they originated from earlier, related, debates about the nature of goal directed systems. These discussions were rooted in scientific advances in the 1920s and 1930s pertaining to cybernetic machines and hom... see more

Alternative Accounts of Function

In this chapter, I consider three theories of function that are relatively new, in the sense that they have been developed over the last twenty years. The “weak etiological theory” says, roughly, that a trait token in an organism has a function so long as that kind of trait contributed to the fitnes... see more

Function and Selection

This chapter focuses on the selected effects theory of function. According to this view, a function of a trait is whatever it was selected for by natural selection or some natural process of selection. I show how the theory plausibly accounts for the explanatory and normative aspects of function. Fi... see more

Conclusion: What Next?

This chapter begins by showing why one standard way of describing the functions debate—as a debate between the selected effects theory, fitness-contribution theory, and causal role theory—is misguided. I then summarize three main conclusions. First, I argue that, to the extent that function statemen... see more

What Is a Theory of Function Supposed to Do?

Biological functions are central to several debates in science and philosophy. In science, they play a role in debates in genetics, neuroscience, biomedicine, and ecology. In philosophy, they play a role in debates about the nature of teleological reasoning, biological information, trait classificat... see more

Functions and Causal Roles

This chapter is about the causal role theory of function. According to this view, roughly, a function of a part of a system consists in its contribution to some system-level effect, which effect has been picked out as especially interesting by a group of researchers. I will discuss Robert Cummins’ o... see more

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Justin Garson
Hunter College (CUNY)

Citations of this work

Teleological theories of mental content.Peter Schulte & Karen Neander - 2022 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
A Generalized Selected Effects Theory of Function.Justin Garson - 2017 - Philosophy of Science 84 (3):523-543.
Ageing and the goal of evolution.Justin Garson - 2021 - History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 43 (1):1-16.

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References found in this work

The Structure of Science.Ernest Nagel - 1961 - Les Etudes Philosophiques 17 (2):275-275.
Physical Computation: A Mechanistic Account.Gualtiero Piccinini - 2015 - Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press UK.
Discovery and explanation in biology and medicine.Kenneth F. Schaffner - 1993 - Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wright on functions.Christopher Boorse - 1976 - Philosophical Review 85 (1):70-86.

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