Chapter

Current Themes in Theoretical Biology

pp 33-69

The Functional Perspective of Organismal Biology

  • Arno WoutersAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy, University of Nijmegen

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Abstract

Following Mayr (1961) evolutionary biologists often maintain that the hallmark of biology is its evolutionary perspective. In this view, biologists distinguish themselves from other natural scientists by their emphasis on why-questions. Why-questions are legitimate in biology but not in other natural sciences because of the selective character of the process by means of which living objects acquire their characteristics. For that reason, why-questions should be answered in terms of natural selection. Functional biology is seen as a reductionist science that applies physics and chemistry to answer how-questions but lacks a biological point of view of its own. In this paper I dispute this image of functional biology. A close look at the kinds of issues studied in biology and at the way in which these issues are studied shows that functional biology employs a distinctive biological perspective that is not rooted in selection. This functional perspective is characterized by its concern with the requirements of the life-state and the way in which these are met.