The Philosophy of Biology

Volume 1 of the series History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences pp 455-486


Biology’s Functional Perspective: Roles, Advantages and Organization

  • Arno G. WoutersAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy, Erasmus University Rotterdam Email author 

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This chapter discusses biology’s functional perspective: what it amounts to, why it is essential and how it differs from our everyday intuitions. Using an explanation of the emperor penguin’s two-voice system as an example, I outline the main characteristics of the functional approach: it views organisms as solutions to the problem to stay alive, it uses role functions to explain how organisms solve this problem, and explains an organism’s features by pointing to the advantages of these features in solving the problems of life. Such an approach is justified because the very existence of organisms depends on their ability to solve these problems and because this ability critically depends on the characteristics of the organism’s parts, their arrangement, and the order and timing of their activities. The functional perspective is the biologist’s way to take this organization into account. However, to deal with the problem of how organization and adaptation come about, pre-Darwinian functional biologists thought of functions not merely as roles in an organization, but as the purposes for which the parts and activities of an organism are generated. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection abolished the need to explain adaptation and, hence, the need for a teleological interpretation of the functional perspective. Functional explanations differ from evolutionary explanations in their concern with individual level relations (evolutionary explanations are population level explanations), and from both teleological and evolutionary explanations in their concern with what is needed to stay alive as opposed to how traits come about. Finally, I explain how the functional approach in biology differs from our intuitions about function by comparing functional reasoning in biology with the teleological notion of function developed by naturalistic philosophers at the end of the twentieth century. This construct is firmly grounded in evolutionary theory and accounts for the intuitions that functions are explanatory, normative and teleological, but doesn’t fit with the way in which biologists reason about function.