Original Article


, Volume 67, Issue 1, pp 65-80

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Design explanation: determining the constraints on what can be alive

  • Arno G. WoutersAffiliated withHeyendaal Institute, Radboud University Nijmegen Email author 


This paper is concerned with reasonings that purport to explain why certain organisms have certain traits by showing that their actual design is better than contrasting designs. Biologists call such reasonings ‘functional explanations’. To avoid confusion with other uses of that phrase, I call them ‘design explanations’. This paper discusses the structure of design explanations and how they contribute to scientific understanding. Design explanations are contrastive and often compare real organisms to hypothetical organisms that cannot possibly exist. They are not causal but appeal to functional dependencies between an organism’s different traits. These explanations point out that because an organism has certain traits (e.g., it lives on land), it cannot be alive if the trait to be explained (e.g., having lungs) were replaced by a specified alternative (e.g., having gills). They can be understood from a mechanistic point of view as revealing the constraints on what mechanisms can be alive.


Functional explanation Mechanistic explanation Design explanation Constraints