The Objectivity of Organizational Functions


We critique the organizational account of biological functions by showing how its basis in the closure of constraints fails to be objective. While the account treats constraints as objective features of physical systems, the number and relationship of potential constraints are subject to potentially arbitrary redescription by investigators. For example, we show that self-maintaining systems such as candle flames can realize closure on a more thorough analysis of the case, contradicting the claim that these “simple” systems lack functional organization. This also raises problems for Moreno and Mossio’s associated theory of biological autonomy, which asserts that living beings are distinguished by their possession of a closed system of constraints that channel and regulate their metabolic processes.

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Fig. 1

(From (Montévil and Mossio 2015))

Fig. 2

(From (Moreno and Mossio 2015, 21; image credit to Maël Montévil))

Fig. 3
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  1. 1.

    We’ve substituted “→” in the quote for “=≫ ” used in the original text.

  2. 2.

    The term “constraint” appears to have two usages in (Moreno and Mossio 2015). On one hand, constraints are a kind of causal relationship between an entity and a process. “Constraints are local and contingent causes, exerted by specific structures or processes, which reduce the degrees of freedom of the system on which they act” (Moreno and Mossio 2015, 5), citing {Pattee:1972vh}. Similarly, “a trait T has a function if, and only if, it exerts a constraint subject to closure in an organisation O of a given system” (Moreno and Mossio 2015, 73). On the other hand, constraints are a kind of entity. “We suggest defining constraints as entities that exhibit a symmetry with respect to a process (or a set of processes) that they help stabilise” (Moreno and Mossio 2015, 11). Similarly, “constraints, in turn, refer to entities that, while acting upon these processes, can be said to remain unaffected by them, at least under certain conditions or from a certain point of view” (Moreno and Mossio 2015, 11). For clarity, we will restrict ourselves to the latter sense in which constraints are entities.

  3. 3.

    We use the definition from (Montévil and Mossio 2015) because it is stated slightly more formally, which helps highlight its key contents. We have also removed a parenthetical comment to a specific figure in (Montévil and Mossio 2015) for clarity.

  4. 4.

    Note that the quote below uses “constraint” to refer to a kind of causal influence the trait (an entity) has on some process in the system. (See also footnote 2.) A paraphrase using constraint as an entity would be “A trait T has a function if, and only if, it is a constraint for a process in the system and T is subject to closure in an organization O of the system.”.

  5. 5.

    To see why it matters, consider a cellular enzyme that undergoes a major allosteric change in shape upon binding to its substrate that is necessary for becoming catalytically active. The enzyme is thus constrained by the presence of the substrate, which itself is unaltered on the timescale of the allosteric change. For argument, let’s assume that the substrate is produced externally to the cell, and so it is not dependent on any other constraints involved in maintaining the cell’s existence. If being subject to closure requires direct dependence on a constraint in the closure set, then the enzyme fails this condition: the presence of the substrate contributes to maintaining the enzyme’s catalytic capacity after any other process enabled by the cell. On MM’s view, the enzyme would then be merely useful but not functional, which is an odd result (Moreno and Mossio 2015). Dropping the direct dependence requirement, however, leads to a parallel liberality problem that made directness important for closure in the first place. If a cell contributes to maintaining a feature of its environment, this feature could then count as functional if it contributes through an indefinitely long and complex chain of processes (subject to other constraints) to maintaining the cell’s organization.

  6. 6.

    Our thanks to an anonymous referee for raising these points.


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We would like to thank the University of Michigan and its Society of Fellows program for providing us with the time and support to collaborate on this project, and Erin Barringer-Sterner for help designing our figures. We also thank the referees and editors for their detailed and constructive feedback, which helped improve the manuscript substantially.

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Correspondence to Beckett Sterner.

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Cusimano, S., Sterner, B. The Objectivity of Organizational Functions. Acta Biotheor 68, 253–269 (2020).

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  • Biological autonomy
  • Feed forward loop
  • Network motifs
  • Constraints
  • Biological individuality
  • Biological function