, Volume 189, Issue 3, pp 451–481 | Cite as

Function, selection, and construction in the brain

  • Justin GarsonEmail author


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.


Function Selection Neural selection Neural construction Addiction 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Allen C., &  Bekoff M. (1995) Biological function, adaptation, and natural design. Philosophy of Science 62: 609–622Google Scholar
  2. Antonini A., Stryker M. P. (1993a) Rapid remodeling of axonal arbors in the visual cortex. Science 260: 1819–1821Google Scholar
  3. Antonini A., Stryker M. P. (1993b) Development of individual geniculocortical arbors in cat striate cortex and effects of binocular impulse blockade. The Journal of Neuroscience 13: 3549–3573Google Scholar
  4. Ayala F. (1970) Teleological explanations in evolutionary biology. Philosophy of Science 37: 1–15Google Scholar
  5. Barlow H. B. (1988) Neuroscience: A new era?. Nature 331: 571Google Scholar
  6. Bechtel W., Richardson R. C. (1993) Discovering complexity: Decomposition and localization as strategies in scientific research. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJGoogle Scholar
  7. Black J. E., Greenough W. T. (1986) Induction of pattern in neural structure by experience: Implications for cognitive development. In: Lamb M. E., Brown A. L., Rogoff B. (Eds.) Advances in developmental psychology Vol. 4. Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, pp 1–50Google Scholar
  8. Black J. E., Greenough W. T. (1997) How to build a brain: Multiple memory systems have evolved and only some of them are constructivist. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 20(4): 558–559Google Scholar
  9. Boorse C. (1976) Wright on functions. Philosophical review 85: 70–86Google Scholar
  10. Bothwell M. (1995) Functional interactions of neurotrophins and neurotrophin receptors. Annual Review of Neuroscience 18: 223–253Google Scholar
  11. Bouchard F. (2008) Causal processes, fitness, and the differential persistence of lineages. Philosophy of Science 75: 560–570Google Scholar
  12. Brandon R. N. (1990) Adaptation and environment. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  13. Brandon, R. N. (forthcoming). A general case for functional pluralism. In P. Huneman (Ed.), Functions: Selection and mechanisms (pp. 199–220). Boston: Synthese Library.Google Scholar
  14. Buller D. J. (2005) Adapting minds: Evolutionary psychology and the persistent quest for human nature. MIT Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  15. Buller D. J., Hardcastle V. G. (2000) Evolutionary psychology, meet developmental neurobiology: Against promiscuous modularity. Brain and Mind 1: 307–325Google Scholar
  16. Buonomano D. V., Merzenich M. M. (1998) Cortical plasticity: From synapses to maps. Annual Review of Neuroscience 21: 149–186Google Scholar
  17. Burnet F. M. (1959) The clonal selection theory of acquired immunity. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  18. Changeux J. P. (1985) Neuronal man. Pantheon Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  19. Changeux J. P. (1997) Variation and selection in neural function. Trends in Neurosciences 20: 291–292Google Scholar
  20. Changeux J.-P., Danchin A. (1976) Selective stabilization of developing synapses as a mechanism for the specification of neuronal networks. Nature 264: 705–712Google Scholar
  21. Changeux J.-P., Courrège P., Danchin A. (1973) A theory of the epigenesis of neural networks by selective stabilization of synapses. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 70: 2974–2978Google Scholar
  22. Clarke P. G. H., Cowan W. M. (1975) Ectopic neurons and aberrant development during neural development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 72: 4455–4458Google Scholar
  23. Clarke P. G. H., Cowan W. M. (1976) The development of the isthmo-optic tract in the chick, with special reference to the occurrence and correction of developmental errors in the location and ocnnections of isthmo-optic neurons. Journal of Comparative Neurology 167: 143–164Google Scholar
  24. Cohen S., Levi-Montalcini R. (1956) A nerve growth stimulating factor, isolated from snake venom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 42: 571–574Google Scholar
  25. Cowan W. M. (1973) Neuronal death as a regulative mechanism in the control of cell number in the nervous system. In: Rockstein M. (Ed.) Development and aging in the nervous system. Academic Press, Newyork, pp 19–41Google Scholar
  26. Cowan W. M. (1978) Aspects of neural development. In: Porter R. (Ed.) Neurophysiology III. University Park Press, Baltimore, pp 149–191Google Scholar
  27. Craver C. (2001) Role functions, mechanisms, and hierarchy. Philosophy of Science 68: 53–74Google Scholar
  28. Craver, C. (forthcoming). Functions and mechanisms in contemporary neuroscience. In P. Huneman (Ed.) Functions: Selection and mechanisms (pp. 199–220). Boston: Synthese Library.Google Scholar
  29. Crick F. (1989) Neural edelmanism. Trends in Neurosciences 12: 240–248Google Scholar
  30. Cummins R. (1975) Functional analysis. Journal of Philosophy 72: 741–765Google Scholar
  31. Cziko G. (1995) Without miracles: Universal selection theory and the second darwinian revolution. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  32. Darden L., Cain J. A. (1989) Selection type theories. Philosophy of Science 56: 106–129Google Scholar
  33. Davies A. M., Bandtlow C., Heumann R., Korsching S., Hermann R., Thoenen H. (1987) Timing and site of nerve growth factor synthesis in developing skin in relation to innervation and expression of the receptor. Nature 326: 353–358Google Scholar
  34. Deppmann D. et al (2008) A model for neuronal competition during development. Science 320: 369–373Google Scholar
  35. Detwiler S. R. (1936) Neuroembryology: An experimental study. Macmillan, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  36. Ebendal T., Olson L., Seiger A., Hedlund K.-O. (1980) Nerve growth factor in the rat iris. Nature 286: 25–28Google Scholar
  37. Edelman G. (1967) Spike trains as carriers of information. In: Quarton G. C., Melnechuk T., Schmitt F. O. (Eds.) The neurosciences: A study program. Rockefeller University Press, Newyork, pp 200–205Google Scholar
  38. Edelman G. (1975) Molecular recognition in the immune and nervous systems. In: Worden F. G., Swazey J. P., Adelman G. (Eds.) The neurosciences: Paths of discovery. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 65–74Google Scholar
  39. Edelman G. M. (1978) Group selection and phasic reentrant signaling: A theory of higher brain function. In: Edelman G. M., Mountcastle V. B. (Eds.) The mindful brain: Cortical organization and the group-selective theory of higher brain function. MIT Press, Cambridge Mass, pp 51–100Google Scholar
  40. Edelman G. M. (1987) Neural darwinism: The theory of neuronal group selection. Basic Books, NewyorkGoogle Scholar
  41. Edelman G. M., Tononi G. (2001) Consciousness: How matter becomes imagination. Penguin, LondonGoogle Scholar
  42. Elliott T., Shadbolt N. R. (1997) Neurotrophic factors, neural selectionism, and neuronal proliferation. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 20: 561–562Google Scholar
  43. Elliott T., Shadbolt N. R. (1998) Competition for neurotrophic factors: Ocular dominance columns. The Journal of Neuroscience 18: 5850–5858Google Scholar
  44. Elliott T., Shadbolt N. R. (2002) Multiplicative synaptic normalization and a nonlinear Hebb rule underlie a neurotrophic model of competitive synaptic plasticity. Neural Computation 14: 1311–1322Google Scholar
  45. Garson J. (2008) Function and teleology. In: Sarkar S., Plutynski A. (Eds.) A companion to the philosophy of biology. Blackwell, Malden, MA, pp 525–549Google Scholar
  46. Garson J. (2010) Schizophrenia and the dysfunctional brain. Journal of Cognitive Science 11: 215–246Google Scholar
  47. Garson J. (2011) Selected effects functions and causal role functions in the brain: The case for an etiological approach to neuroscience. Biology & Philosophy 26: 547–565Google Scholar
  48. Gazzaniga M. S. (1992) Nature’s mind: The biological roots of thinking, emotions, sexuality, language, and intelligence. Basic Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  49. Glennan S. (2002) Contextual unanimity and the units of selection problem. Philosophy of Science 69: 118–137Google Scholar
  50. Glennan S. (2005) Modeling mechanisms. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 36(2): 443–464Google Scholar
  51. Godfrey-Smith P. (1992) Indication and adaptation. Synthese 92: 283–312Google Scholar
  52. Godfrey-Smith P. (1994) A modern history theory of functions. Nous 28: 344–362Google Scholar
  53. Godfrey-Smith P. (2007) Conditions for evolution by natural selection. Journal of Philosophy 104: 489–516Google Scholar
  54. Goldstein R. Z., Volkow N. D. (2011) Dysfunction of the prefrontal cortex in addiction: Neuroimaging findings and clinical implications. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 12: 652–669Google Scholar
  55. Griffiths P. E. (1993) Functional analysis and proper function. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 44: 409–422Google Scholar
  56. Griffiths P. E. (2006) Function, homology, and character individuation. Philosophy of Science 73: 1–25Google Scholar
  57. Haier R. J., Karama S., Leyba L., Jung R. E. (2009) MRI assessment of cortical thickness and functional activity changes in adolescent girls following three months of practice on a visual-spatial task. BMC Research Notes 2: 174–180Google Scholar
  58. Hamburger V. (1958) Regression versus peripheral control of differentiation in motor hypoplasia. American Journal of Anatomy 102: 365–410Google Scholar
  59. Hamburger V., Levi-Montalcini R. (1949) Proliferation, differentiation, and degeneration in the spinal ganglia of the chick embryo under normal and experimental conditions. Journal of Experimental Zoology 111: 457–507Google Scholar
  60. Harris A. E., Ermentrout G. B., Small S. L. (1997) A model of ocular dominance column development by competition for trophic factor. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 94: 9944–9949Google Scholar
  61. Harris A. E., Ermentrout G. B., Small S. L. (2000) A model of ocular dominance column development by competition for trophic factor: Effects of excess trophic factor with monocular deprivation and effects of antagonist of trophic factor. Journal of Computational Neuroscience 8: 227–250Google Scholar
  62. Hebb D. O. (1949) The organization of behavior. Wiley, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  63. Hodgkin A. L., Huxley A. F. (1939) Action potentials recorded from inside a nerve fiber. Nature 144: 710–711Google Scholar
  64. Hollyday M., Hamburger V. (1976) Reduction in naturally occurring motor neuron loss by enlargement of the periphery. Journal of Comparative Neurology 170: 311–320Google Scholar
  65. Huang E. J., Reichardt L. F. (2001) Neurotrophins: Roles in neuronal development and function. Annual Review of Neuroscience 24: 677–736Google Scholar
  66. Hubel D. H., Wiesel T. N. (1965) Binocular interaction in striate cortex of kittens reared with artificial squint. Journal of Neurophysiology 28: 1041–1059Google Scholar
  67. Hubel D. H., Wiesel T. N. (1972) Laminar and columnar distribution of geniculo-cortical fibers in the macaque monkey. Journal of Comparative Neurology 146: 421–450Google Scholar
  68. Hubel D. H., Wiesel T. N., LeVay S. (1977) Plasticity of ocular dominance columns in monkey striate cortex. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 278: 377–409Google Scholar
  69. Hull D. L., Langman R. E., Glenn S. S. (2001) A general account of selection: Biology, immunology and behavior. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24: 511–527Google Scholar
  70. Hyman S. E., Malenka R. C., Nestler E. J. (2006) Neural mechanisms of addiction: The role of reward-related learning and memory. Annual Review of Neuroscience 29: 565–598Google Scholar
  71. Jerne N. K. (1955) The natural-selection theory of antibody formation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 41(11): 849–857Google Scholar
  72. Jerne N. K. (1967) Antibodies and learning: Selection vs. instruction. In: Quarton G. C., Melnechuk T., Schmitt F. O. (Eds.) The neurosciences: A study program. Rockefeller University Press, New York, pp 200–205Google Scholar
  73. Johnson E. M. Jr., Deckworth T. L. (1993) Molecular mechanisms of developmental neuronal death. Annual Review of Neuroscience 16: 31–46Google Scholar
  74. Kandel E. R., Schwartz J. H., Jessell T. M. (2000) Principles of neural science (4th ed.). McGraw Hill, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  75. Kaplan D. M. (2011) Explanation and description in computational neuroscience. Synthese 183: 339–373Google Scholar
  76. Katz L. C., Shatz J. C. (1996) Synaptic activity and the construction of cortical circuits. Science 234: 1133–1138Google Scholar
  77. Kingsbury J. (2008) Learning and selection. Biology and Philosophy 23: 493–507Google Scholar
  78. Lederberg J. (1959) Genes and antibodies. Science 129: 1649–1653Google Scholar
  79. LeDoux J. (2002) Synaptic self: How our brains become who we are. Penguin, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  80. Lennox J. G., Wilson B. E. (1994) Natural selection and the struggle for existence. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 25: 65–80Google Scholar
  81. Levi-Montalcini R., Cohen S. (1960) Effects of the extract of the mouse submaxillary glands on the sympathetic system of mammals. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 85: 324–341Google Scholar
  82. Lewens T. (2007) Functions. In: Matthen M., Stevens C., Gabbay D. M., Thagard P., Woods J. (Eds.) Philosophy of biology. Elsevier, Amsterdam, pp 525–547Google Scholar
  83. Lewontin R. C. (1970) The units of selection. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 1: 1–18Google Scholar
  84. Lichtman J. W., Burden S. J., Culican S. M., Wong R. O. L. (1999) Synapse formation and elimination. In: Zigmond M. J., Bloom F. E., Landis S. C., Roberts J. L., Squire L. R. (Eds.) Fundamental neuroscience. Academic Press, San Diego, pp 547–580Google Scholar
  85. Machamer P., Darden L., Craver C. F. (2000) Thinking about mechanisms. Philosophy of Science 67: 1–25Google Scholar
  86. Maclaurin J., Sterelny K. (2008) What is biodiversity?. University of Chicago, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  87. Mameli M., Bellone C., Brown M. T. C., Lüscher C. (2011) Cocaine inverts rules for synaptic plasticity of glutamate transmission in the ventral tegmental area. Nature Neuroscience 14: 414–416Google Scholar
  88. McDowell J. J. (2009) Behavioral and neural darwinism: Selectionist function and mechanism in adaptive behavior dynamics. Behavioural Processes 84(1): 358–365Google Scholar
  89. Meyer R. L. (1998) Roger Sperry and his chemoaffinity hypothesis. Neuropsychologia 36: 957–980Google Scholar
  90. Meyer R. L., Sperry R. (1976) Retinotectal specificity: Chemoaffinity theory. In: Gottlieb G. (Ed.) Studies on the development of behavior and the nervous system, vol. 3: Neural and behavioral specificity. Academic Press, New York, pp 111–149Google Scholar
  91. Millikan R. G. (1984) Language, thought, and other biological categories. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  92. Millikan R. G. (1989) In defense of proper functions. Philosophy of Science 56: 288–302Google Scholar
  93. Millikan R. G. (2002) Biofunctions: Two paradigms. In: Ariew A., Cummins R., Perlman M. (Eds.) Functions: New essays in the philosophy of psychology and biology. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 113–143Google Scholar
  94. Millstein R. L. (2009) Populations as individuals. Biological Theory 4: 267–273Google Scholar
  95. Mitchell S. D. (1995) Function, fitness, and disposition. Biology and Philosophy 10: 39–54Google Scholar
  96. Neander, K. (1983). Abnormal psychobiology. Dissertation, La Trobe.Google Scholar
  97. Neander K. (1991) Functions as selected effects: The conceptual analyst’s defense. Philosophy of Science 58: 168–184Google Scholar
  98. Neander K. (1999) Fitness and the fate of unicorns. In: Hardcastle V. G. (Ed.) Where biology meets psychology. MIT Press, Cambridge MA, pp 3–26Google Scholar
  99. Neander K. (2008) Teleological theories of mental content: Can Darwin solve the problem of intentionality?. In: Ruse M. (Ed.) The Oxford handbook of philosophy of biology. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 381–409Google Scholar
  100. Okasha S. (2003) Does the concept of “clade selection” make sense?. Philosophy of Science 70: 739–751Google Scholar
  101. Oppenheim R. W. (1989) The neurotrophic theory and naturally occurring motoneuron death. Trends in Neurosciences 12: 252–255Google Scholar
  102. Oppenheim R. W. (1991) Cell death during development of the nervous system. Annual Review of Neuroscience 14: 453–501Google Scholar
  103. Papineau D. (1987) Reality and representation. Blackwell, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  104. Papineau D. (1993) Philosophical naturalism. Blackwell, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  105. Papineau D. (1995) Mental disorder, illness and biological disfunction. In: Griffiths A. P. (Ed.) Philosophy, psychology and psychiatry. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 73–82Google Scholar
  106. Pettmann B., Henderson C. E. (1998) Neuronal cell death. Neuron 20: 653–660Google Scholar
  107. Piccinini G., Craver C. (2011) Integrating psychology and neuroscience: Functional analyses as mechanism sketches. Synthese 183: 283–311Google Scholar
  108. Price D. J., Jarman A. P., Mason J. O., Kind P. C. (2011) Building brains: An introduction to neural development. Wiley-Blackwell, ChichesterGoogle Scholar
  109. Porges S. W., Carter C. S. (2011) Mechanisms, mediators, and adaptive consequences of caregiving. In: Brown S. L., Brown R. M., Penner L. A. (Eds.) Moving beyond self-interest: Perspectives from evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and the social sciences. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 53–71Google Scholar
  110. Purves D. (1988) A new theory of brain function. The Quarterly Review of Biology 63: 202–204Google Scholar
  111. Purves D. (1994) Neural activity and the growth of the brain. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  112. Purves D., White L. E., Riddle D. R. (1996) Is neural development darwinian?. Trends in Neuroscience 19: 460–464Google Scholar
  113. Quartz S. R., Sejnowski T. J. (1997) The neural basis of cognitive development: A constructivist manifesto. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 20: 537–596Google Scholar
  114. Rakic P. (1976) Prenatal genesis of connections subserving ocular dominance in the rhesus monkey. Nature 261: 467–471Google Scholar
  115. Robbins T. W., Everitt B. J. (1999) Drug addiction: Bad habits add up. Nature 398: 567–570Google Scholar
  116. Schaffner K. (1993) Discovery and explanation in biology and medicine. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  117. Schlaggar B. L., McCandliss B. D. (2007) Development of neural systems for reading. Annual Review of Neuroscience 30: 475–503Google Scholar
  118. Scholes J. (1979) Nerve fiber topography in the retinal projection to the tectum. Nature 278: 620–624Google Scholar
  119. Schultz W. (1998) Predictive reward signal of dopamine neurons. Journal of Neurophysiology 80: 1–27Google Scholar
  120. Schwartz P. H. (1999) Proper function and recent selection. Philosophy of Science 66: S210–S222Google Scholar
  121. Skinner B. F. (1953) Science and human behavior. The Free Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  122. Skinner B. F. (1981) Selection by consequences. Science 213: 501–504Google Scholar
  123. Sober E. (1984) The nature of selection. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  124. Sober E., Wilson D. S. (1998) Unto others: The evolution and psychology of unselfish behavior. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  125. Sperry R. (1951) Mechanisms of neural maturation. In: Stevens S. S. (Ed.) Handbook of experimental psychology. Wiley, Newyork, pp 236–280Google Scholar
  126. Sperry R. (1963) Chemoaffinity in the orderly growth of nerve fiber patterns of connections. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 50: 703–710Google Scholar
  127. Sporns O. (1997a) Variation and selection in neural function. Trends in Neurosciences 20: 291Google Scholar
  128. Sporns O. (1997b) Deconstructing neural constructivism. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 20: 576–577Google Scholar
  129. Van Ooyen A. (2011) Using theoretical models to analyze neural development. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 12: 311–326Google Scholar
  130. Walicke P. A. (1989) Novel neurotrophic factors, receptors, and oncogenes. Annual Review of Neuroscience 12: 103–126Google Scholar
  131. Walsh D. M., Ariew A. (1996) A taxonomy of functions. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 26: 493–514Google Scholar
  132. Weiskopf D. A. (2011) Models and mechanisms in psychological explanation. Synthese 183: 313–338Google Scholar
  133. Wiesel T. N., Hubel D. H. (1963) Single-cell responses in striate cortex of kittens deprived of vision in one eye. Journal of Neurophysiology 26: 1003–1017Google Scholar
  134. Wilson D. S. (1975) A theory of group selection. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 72: 143–146Google Scholar
  135. Wimsatt W. C. (1972) Teleology and the logical structure of function statements. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 3: 1–80Google Scholar
  136. Wouters A. (2003) Four notions of biological function. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 34: 633–668Google Scholar
  137. Wright L. (1973) Functions. Philosophical Review 82: 139–168Google Scholar
  138. Wright L. (1976) Teleological explanations: An etiological analysis of goals and functions. University of California Press, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
  139. Young J. Z. (1936) The structure of nerve fibres in cephalopods and Crustacea. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 121: 319–337Google Scholar
  140. Young J. Z. (1964) A model of the brain. Clarendon Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  141. Yuan J., Horvitz H. R. (1990) The Caenorhabditis elegans genes ced-3 and ced-4 act cell autonomously to cause programmed cell death. Developmental Biology 138: 33–41Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, Hunter CollegeCity University of New YorkNew YorkUSA

Personalised recommendations