, Volume 189, Issue 3, pp 451-481
Date: 24 May 2012

Function, selection, and construction in the brain

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Abstract

A common misunderstanding of the selected effects theory of function is that natural selection operating over an evolutionary time scale is the only function-bestowing process in the natural world. This construal of the selected effects theory conflicts with the existence and ubiquity of neurobiological functions that are evolutionary novel, such as structures underlying reading ability. This conflict has suggested to some that, while the selected effects theory may be relevant to some areas of evolutionary biology, its relevance to neuroscience is marginal. This line of reasoning, however, neglects the fact that synapses, entire neurons, and potentially groups of neurons can undergo a type of selection analogous to natural selection operating over an evolutionary time scale. In the following, I argue that neural selection should be construed, by the selected effect theorist, as a distinct type of function-bestowing process in addition to natural selection. After explicating a generalized selected effects theory of function and distinguishing it from similar attempts to extend the selected effects theory, I do four things. First, I show how it allows one to identify neural selection as a distinct function-bestowing process, in contrast to other forms of neural structure formation such as neural construction. Second, I defend the view from one major criticism, and in so doing I clarify the content of the view. Third, I examine drug addiction to show the potential relevance of neural selection to neuroscientific and psychological research. Finally, I endorse a modest pluralism of function concepts within biology.