A Unifying Theory of Biological Function

Biological Theory 12 (2):112-126 (2017)
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A new theory that naturalizes biological function is explained and compared with earlier etiological and causal role theories. Etiological theories explain functions from how they are caused over their evolutionary history. Causal role theories analyze how functional mechanisms serve the current capacities of their containing system. The new proposal unifies the key notions of both kinds of theories, but goes beyond them by explaining how functions in an organism can exist as factors with autonomous causal efficacy. The goal-directedness and normativity of functions exist in this strict sense as well. The theory depends on an internal physiological or neural process that mimics an organism’s fitness, and modulates the organism’s variability accordingly. The structure of the internal process can be subdivided into subprocesses that monitor specific functions in an organism. The theory matches well with each intuition on a previously published list of intuited ideas about biological functions, including intuitions that have posed difficulties for other theories.

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J. H. van Hateren
University of Groningen


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