Purpose and Function in Biology

Part of the The University of Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science book series (WONS, volume 47)


There is a sense in which biology is a science much narrower in scope than physics. After all, it deals with, so far as we know, systems that make up only a very small part of the universe.1 On the other hand, it is also true that there is an immense diversity in the sorts of organic systems with which it deals. In that respect, the theory is one of considerable scope. But all that scope notwithstanding, there is one feature which all biological systems share and which set them apart from “merely” physical systems. This is the fact that they all exemplify purposive, or more neutrally, goal-directed behaviour, and that their various organs and “parts” function, on the whole with some efficiency, to achieve these goals. To speak about goals and functions separating living or biological systems from the nonliving does not, of course, preclude that these features can be given thoroughly physico-chemical explanations. To maintain that they can be so explained is not to obliterate the obvious distinction between, on the one hand, things like cacti, cats, and barnacles, and, on the other hand, stones and stars, the distinction, in other words, between living things and the “merely” physical. We shall have more to say about the possibility of such “reductions” in due course. For the moment, however, what we must do is clarify — find the scientific or empirical content of — the notions of function and of goal-directedness.


Function Statement Narrow Sense Beating Heart Adaptive Variation Normal Environment 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentUniversity of TorontoCanada

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