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Can We Eliminate the Idea of Function from Biology? A Philosopher and a Biologist Want to Try

Denyse O'Leary
Photo credit: Piotr Musioł via Unsplash.

We tend to assume that our values come in part from the careers we follow. Often, that’s true. If a given mindset works well at work, we may try it at home. But that process can work in reverse. We can start with a mindset and try to graft it onto our work. With mixed results. 

“Role,” Not “Function”

That seems to have happened in some quarters in biology. For example, the term “function” in life forms is linked historically with the idea that life forms show evidence of design. Therefore, philosopher Emmanuel Ratti and molecular biologist Pierre-Luc Germain argue, biologists shouldn’t use it:

The notion of biological function is fraught with difficulties — intrinsically and irremediably so, we argue. The physiological practice of functional ascription originates from a time when organisms were thought to be designed and remained largely unchanged since. In a secularized worldview, this creates a paradox which accounts of functions as selected effect attempt to resolve. This attempt, we argue, misses its target in physiology and it brings problems of its own. Instead, we propose that a better solution to the conundrum of biological functions is to abandon the notion altogether, a prospect not only less daunting than it appears, but arguably the natural continuation of the naturalisation of biology.


They propose the term “biological role” instead. Thus, presumably, “the function of teeth is chewing” becomes “the biological role of teeth is chewing.”

Teeth by Design

But what difference does their new terminology really make? Teeth have the biological role of chewing because of their design. Fingers and thumbs do not. One can argue about the source of the design. But what is achieved by trying to do away with the very concept of function?

The authors venture an answer: “the natural continuation of the naturalisation of biology.” Naturalization of biology is an expression of physicalism, the idea that physical nature is all there is. Perhaps its best-known example is the belief that “the mind is what the brain does” and nothing more.

The trouble is, biologists did not invent either function or the concept of function in human language. Life itself and the language we use to describe it literally run on function — and on purpose as well. We have things — shovels, feet, thoughts — to fulfil functions associated with our purposes.

Read the rest at Mind Matters News, published by Discovery Institute’s Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.