Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 15, Issue 5, pp 641–668

Functional Complexity in Organisms: Parts as Proxies

  • Daniel W. McShea

DOI: 10.1023/A:1006695908715

Cite this article as:
McShea, D.W. Biology & Philosophy (2000) 15: 641. doi:10.1023/A:1006695908715


The functional complexity, or the number of functions, of organisms hasfigured prominently in certain theoretical and empirical work inevolutionary biology. Large-scale trends in functional complexity andcorrelations between functional complexity and other variables, such assize, have been proposed. However, the notion of number of functions hasalso been operationally intractable, in that no method has been developedfor counting functions in an organism in a systematic and reliable way.Thus, studies have had to rely on the largely unsupported assumption thatnumber of functions can be measured indirectly, by using number ofmorphological, physiological, and behavioral “parts” as a proxy. Here, amodel is developed that supports this assumption. Specifically, the modelpredicts that few parts will have many functions overlapping in them, andtherefore the variance in number of functions per part will be low. If so,then number of parts is expected to be well correlated with number offunctions, and we can use part counts as proxies for function counts incomparative studies of organisms, even when part counts are low. Alsodiscussed briefly is a strategy for identifying certain kinds of parts inorganisms in a systematic way.

complexity evolution function modularity parts 

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Daniel W. McShea
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of ZoologyDuke UniversityDurhamUSA