An account of conserved functions and how biologists use them to integrate cell and evolutionary biology

Biology and Philosophy 38 (5):1-23 (2023)
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We characterize a type of functional explanation that addresses why a homologous trait originating deep in the evolutionary history of a group remains widespread and largely unchanged across the group’s lineages. We argue that biologists regularly provide this type of explanation when they attribute conserved functions to phenotypic and genetic traits. The concept of conserved function applies broadly to many biological domains, and we illustrate its importance using examples of molecular sequence alignments at the intersection of evolution and cell biology. We use these examples to show how the study of conserved functions can integrate knowledge of a trait’s causal effects on fitness and its history of natural selection without invoking adaptation. We also show how conserved function provides a novel basis for addressing objections against evolutionary functions raised by Robert Cummins.

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Author Profiles

Steve Elliott
Arizona State University
Beckett Sterner
Arizona State University

Citations of this work

Are Biology Experts and Novices Function Pluralists?Andrew J. Roberts & Pierrick Bourrat - forthcoming - Review of Philosophy and Psychology:1-19.

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Health as a theoretical concept.Christopher Boorse - 1977 - Philosophy of Science 44 (4):542-573.
In search of mechanisms: discoveries across the life sciences.Carl F. Craver - 2013 - London: University of Chicago Press. Edited by Lindley Darden.
Function and Design.Philip Kitcher - 1993 - Midwest Studies in Philosophy 18 (1):379-397.

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