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Can We Eliminate the Idea of Function From the Study of Life?

The question is, can biology journals take away what they did not give, without harming their own enterprise?

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.

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.

Ratti, E., Germain, PL. A relic of design: against proper functions in biology. Biol Philos 37, 27 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-022-09856-z” The paper is open access.

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

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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.

And so do all life forms. The lives of cats and dogs are full of function and purpose. So are the lives of slime molds in pursuit of food. Bacteria are purpose-driven. So are plants.

Non-living things are not purpose-driven. Rocks do not care about becoming sand.

The problem with Ratti and German’s position is not that it is opposed to intelligent design theory but that it is in conflict with the self-evident nature of life forms. Insisting that biologists use the term “biological role” instead of “function” changes nothing except that it takes longer to say and type. And pretty soon, one might venture a guess, they will want to get rid of “biological role” too because what it stands for — evident function and purpose in nature — won’t have changed a bit. Let’s hope the next euphemism isn’t even longer.

You may also wish to read: Why do many scientists see cells as intelligent? Bacteria appear to show intelligent behavior. But what about individual cells in our bodies?

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Can We Eliminate the Idea of Function From the Study of Life?