Cuvierian Functionalism

Philosophy, Theory, and Practice in Biology 11 (2019)
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This paper makes the case that evolutionary-developmental biology, in explaining the deep conservation of animal body plans, relies on a Cuvierian functionalist explanatory strategy. Philosophical analysis commonly treats evo-devo as a “typological” research program, in contrast to the population thinking that undergirds population-genetic approaches to evolutionary theorizing. The central aim of this paper is to show that many of the features that have led evo-devo to be treated as typological are in fact the product of its Cuvierian functionalism. To achieve this overarching goal, this paper has three subsidiary aims: to distinguish two ways in which Mayr’s notoriously unprincipled notion of typological thinking can be made precise, to show that one of these ways—Cuvierian functionalism—plays an important role in evo-devo’s developmental genetic explanations of the deep conservation of animal body plans, to show that Cuvierian functionalism is compatible with and complementary to the Darwinian functionalism and population thinking of mainstream evolutionary theory. The remainder of this introduction is concerned with making the relations between these three aims more salient.



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Rose Novick
University of Washington

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