Design thinking in general, and optimality modeling in particular, have traditionally been associated with adaptationism—a research agenda that gives pride of place to natural selection in shaping biological characters. Our goal is to evaluate the role of design thinking in non-evolutionary analyses. Specifically, we focus on research into abstract design principles that underpin the functional organization of extant organisms. Drawing on case studies from engineering-inspired approaches in biology we show how optimality analysis, and other design-related methods, play a specific methodological role that is tangential to the study of adaptation. To account for the role of these reasoning strategies in contemporary biology, we therefore suggest a reevaluation of the connection between design thinking and adaptationism.
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An early formulation along similar lines can be found in Lauder (1982, p. 58): “I define design as the organization of biological structure in relation to an hypothesized function.” Lauder explicitly distinguishes ‘design’ from ‘adaptation’, which “is restricted to features that have arisen by means of natural selection.”
Calcott (2014) discusses the role of design thinking in non-adaptationist evolutionary analysis. We are in agreement with much of what Calcott says, but we will not dwell on the connections (and differences) to our paper.
While some researchers have questioned the ability of biological research to identify the design principles actually operative in a given organism (Marom et al. 2009), there are large-scale projects devoted to evaluating the success of procedures for reverse engineering (Stolovitzky et al. 2007). Our concern, however, is not with the potential for success in these projects but with the conceptual implications of this research strategy.
These two facts are linked: part of the interest in this system stems from the (hotly contested) role of stem cells in carcinogenesis.
Nowak et al. regard cancer as a somatic evolutionary process, i.e., as involving natural selection among cells within the body. There is an ongoing discussion both among biologists and in recent philosophy about whether cancer is rightly viewed as form of intra-bodily evolution (Germain 2012). This issue does not affect our argument. To forestall confusion, we will not describe cancer in evolutionary terms.
Itzkovitz et al. offer some (non-evolutionary) support for this. We discuss this aspect below—see Section 4.2.
Thus, they do not test—nor suggest tests—for an evolutionary hypothesis concerning crypt development.
For further examples, see Shinar and Feinberg (2011).
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We wish to thank Shalev Itzkovitz for oral discussion and written correspondence as well as two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments. Sara Green gratefully acknowledges support from the Danish Research Council for Independent Research/Humanities for the grant Philosophy of Contemporary Science in Practice.
Sara Green, Arnon Levy, and William Bechtel contributed equally to this work.
The paper was written while this author was a Polonsky Postdoctoral Fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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Green, S., Levy, A. & Bechtel, W. Design sans adaptation. Euro Jnl Phil Sci 5, 15–29 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13194-014-0096-3
- Design thinking
- Reverse engineering