Journal Article

Fitness and Function

D. M. Walsh

in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science

Published on behalf of British Society for the Philosophy of Science

Volume 47, issue 4, pages 553-574
Published in print December 1996 | ISSN: 0007-0882
e-ISSN: 1464-3537 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/bjps/47.4.553
Fitness and Function

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According to historical theories of biological function, a trait's function is determined by natural selection in the past. I argue that, in addition to historical functions, ahistorical functions ought to be recognized. I propose a theory of biological function which accommodates both. The function of a trait is the way it contributes to fitness and fitness can only be determined relative to a selective regime. Therefore, the function of a trait can only be specified relative to a selective regime. Apart from its desirable pluralism, only this view of relational function can support the function/accident and function/malfunction distinctions commonly thought to be part of the concept of function. Furthermore, only relational function correctly characterizes the explanatory consequences of function attributions in evolutionary biology.

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Subjects: Philosophy of Science ; Science and Mathematics

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