The role of selection in functional explanations

André Rosolem SANT'ANNA About the author

In this essay I will argue that natural selection is more important to functional explanations than what has been thought in some of the literature in philosophy of biology. I start by giving a brief overview of the two paradigms cases of functional explanations: etiological functions and causal-role functions. i then consider one particular attempt to conciliate both perspectives given by David Buller (1998). Buller's trial to conciliate both etiological functions and causal-role functions results in what he calls a weak etiological theory. I argue that Buller has not succeeded in his construal of the weak etiological theory: he underestimates the role that selective processes have in functional explanations and so his theory may not be classified as an etiologial theory. As an alternative, I consider the account of etiological functions given by Ruth Millikan (1984) and I argue that Millikan's theory is more comprehensive to assess contentious case in biology like exaptations. Finally, I conclude by analyzing where the adoption of Millikan's theory leave us. I argue, contrary to Millikan and others, that once we assume the importance of natural selection in functional explanations, there is no strong reason to resist a linguistic reform of the word function and hence that the attempts to conciliate both etiological functions and causal-role functions are misplaced.

natural selection; functional explanations; etiological theories.


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