Design explanation: Determining the constraints on what can be alive [Book Review]

Erkenntnis 67 (1):65-80 (2007)
This paper is concerned with reasonings that purport to explain why certain organisms have certain traits by showing that their actual design is better than contrasting designs. Biologists call such reasonings 'functional explanations'. To avoid confusion with other uses of that phrase, I call them 'design explanations'. This paper discusses the structure of design explanations and how they contribute to scientific understanding. Design explanations are contrastive and often compare real organisms to hypothetical organisms that cannot possibly exist. They are not causal but appeal to functional dependencies between an organism's different traits. These explanations point out that because an organism has certain traits , it cannot be alive if the trait to be explained were replaced by a specified alternative . They can be understood from a mechanistic point of view as revealing the constraints on what mechanisms can be alive
Keywords functional explanation  design explanation  mechanistic explanation  constraint  contrastive explanation  functional dependency
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DOI 10.2307/27667910
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References found in this work BETA
Stuart Glennan (2002). Rethinking Mechanistic Explanation. Proceedings of the Philosophy of Science Association 2002 (3):S342-353.
Robert C. Cummins (1975). Functional Analysis. Journal of Philosophy 72 (November):741-64.

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Citations of this work BETA
Sara Green (forthcoming). Can Biological Complexity Be Reverse Engineered? Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences.
Paul E. Griffiths (2007). The Phenomena of Homology. Biology and Philosophy 22 (5):643-658.

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Design explanations are explanations, or maybe just arguments, addressing questions about why certain organisms have some traits instead of others. For example, since tetrapods have lungs but don't have gills, it seems reasonable to ask why. Design explanations attempt to answer such questions by looking at functional dependencies and integration between different traits in the same organism. For example, we might start by looking at the functional requirements for respiration in a large organism living on land, invoke the relevant laws from physics or chemistry or biology, and show that having gills would make the organism less viable. 

Wouters proposes a schema for design explanations. In my words:

1) Specify the organism's properties and conditions of existence.
2) Assert that trait T possessed by the organism is more useful than alternative trait T'.
3) Provide an explanation of 2).

I see 2) as an undue limitation. Contrasting alternative traits is a very important strategy but we could ma ... (read more)
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