Function without purpose

Biology and Philosophy 9 (4):443-469 (1994)
Philosophers of evolutionary biology favor the so-called etiological concept of function according to which the function of a trait is its evolutionary purpose, defined as the effect for which that trait was favored by natural selection. We term this the selected effect (SE) analysis of function. An alternative account of function was introduced by Robert Cummins in a non-evolutionary and non-purposive context. Cummins''s account has received attention but little support from philosophers of biology. This paper will show that a similar non-purposive concept of function, which we term causal role (CR) function, is crucial to certain research programs in evolutionary biology, and that philosophical criticisms of Cummins''s concept are ineffective in this scientific context. Specifically, we demonstrate that CR functions are a vital and ineliminable part of research in comparative and functional anatomy, and that biological categories used by anatomists are not defined by the application of SE functional analysis. Causal role functions are non-historically defined, but may themselves be used in an historical analysis. Furthermore, we show that a philosophical insistence on the primary of SE functions places practicing biologists in an untenable position, as such functions can rarely be demonstrated (in contrast to CR functions). Biologists who study the form and function of organismal design recognize that it is virtually impossible to identify the past action of selection on any particular structure retrospectively, a requirement for recognizing SE functions.
Keywords Function  natural selection  anatomy  homology
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DOI 10.1007/BF00850375
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Denis M. Walsh & André Ariew (1996). A Taxonomy of Functions. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 26 (4):493 - 514.

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