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Peter McLaughlin (2001) What Functions Explain: Functional Explanation and Self-
Reproducing Systems. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Ms., xi + 259 pp, $75.

In a previous paper in this journal (Wouters, 2005a) I observed that most recent work
on biological function seeks to articulate a notion of biological function that serves
the aims of naturalistic philosophy of mind (namely to reduce human intentionality to
biological function). Such accounts aim for a notion of function that is metaphysically
unproblematic. They tend to end up with a notion of function that is philosophically, well-
founded, but provides little insight in real biology. McLaughlins What Functions Explain
is different. His main interest is not in the philosophy of mind but in the philosophy of
science, especially of biology and social science. He neither aims to articulate a notion of
function that is metaphysically as unproblematic as possible, nor to deliver a verdict on the
legitimacy of functional explanation. Rather, he seeks to describe the actual metaphysical
presuppositions of a certain use of function attributions in biology and social science.
His central concern is the question what metaphysical assumptions one makes about a
system if one ascribes functions to its parts and behaviors in order to explain why those
function bearers are where and what they are. Of what kind of systems are function
attributions explanatory?
McLaughlin distinguishes two traditions of explicating functions: the dispositional
view (favored by Nagel, Cummins, and Bigelow & Pargetter) and the etiological view
(favored by Hempel, Ruse, Elster, Wright, Neander and Millikan). The dispositional
view is characterized by the idea that functions are contributions to some end, where the
end is defined differently in different theories. For example, the end can be defined by
the characteristic activities of the system (Nagel), the capacities one wants to explain
(Cummins), or the survival and reproduction of the organism (Bigelow & Pargetter). The
dispositional view covers, according to McLaughlin, a large part of the use of function
talk in biology and shows that this talk is metaphysically unproblematic. However, the
dispositional view cannot account for the use of function attributions to causally explain
the occurrence or the structure of the function bearer.
The etiological view is characterized by the idea that functions are supposed to explain
why the function bearer occurs. McLaughlin depicts Hempel as the originator of this
tradition. According to him, Hempels analysis has two major elements:
(1) disposition: a function bearer (X) does or enables something (Y)
(2) welfare: Y is beneficial to some system (S).
Because these two conditions do not guarantee that the function bearer occurs,
Hempel rejected functional explanation as invalid. Later accounts in Hempels tradi-
tion seek to solve this problem by adding a third condition:
(3) feedback: the occurrence of X in S is the result of a feedback mechanism involving
the exercise of Y.
Ruses and Elsters analyses contain all three elements, the other etiological views
drop the welfare condition, explicitly or implicitly. This makes them vulnerable to two
types of unintuitive function attributions: the attribution of functions to items or activities
that were once useful but have lost that utility and the attribution of functions to organisms
as a whole. The main challenge (for all etiological accounts) is, of course, to describe

Acta Biotheoretica (2006) 54: 5559

DOI: 10.1007/s10441-006-6801-7

a suitable feedback mechanism (Elster denies that there is such a mechanism in society
and for that reason rejects functional explanation in social science). The dominant view
(Neander, Millikan) holds that the relevant feedback mechanism is provided by natural
selection. McLaughlin sees several problems with this view. The main ones are that, on
the one hand, functions are readily ascribed to new traits as soon as they are useful to
the organism, even if they are not yet selected for (hopeful monsters and swamp mules)
(which shows that natural selection is not necessary), and, on the other hand, that we deny
that the parts of replicating crystals have functions (which shows that natural selection
is not sufficient).
McLaughlins own analysis is in line with the etiological tradition. However, unlike
the dominant account it is not a selected effects theory. Instead, it seeks the relevant
feedback mechanism at the individual level.
McLaughlin accepts all three conditions of the etiological approach (disposition,
welfare and feedback). His variant of the first condition (disposition) says that the function
is persistent or regularly produced. The only metaphysical presupposition associated with
this condition is causality, an assumption that is relatively unproblematic. The analysis
of the other conditions (welfare and feedback) reveals more problematic assumptions.
According to McLaughlin functional explanation assumes that the systems to which this
kind of explanation is applied have a good for themselves and that it is the contribution
to this good (the function) that explains the existence of the function bearer.
In regard to the feedback condition, consider the case of a new trait with a beneficial
effect (for example a somatic mutation that allows more accurate vision). When are we
inclined to see the production of this benefit as a function rather than an accident? If the
trait is persistent or regularly produced and if its being beneficial somehow explains the
presence of the trait (this all sounds very similar to Wright). Suppose that an organism is
continuously scrutinizing its parts and behaviors, keeping beneficial modifications and
eliminating harmful ones. In that case we could say that the new trait is there because of
the benefits it confers to the organism as a whole.
Something like this seems to be the case in organisms. Their organs remain what they
are because they are part of an organism that is continuously rebuilding and repairing
itself. The organs are supplied with energy, nutrients, and chemicals that influence its
operation, wastes are removed, temperatures maintained, cells replaced and so on. If
nothing happens to an organ it will degenerate and if an organ degenerates the organism
will die. This means that if an organ contributes to the well-being of the organism as
a whole it will thereby contribute to its own maintenance. However, if it has adverse
effects on the organisms well being it will contribute to its own degeneration. So, self-
maintenance seems to provide the required feedback mechanism.
Reflection on the second condition (welfare) leads to a similar conclusion.
McLaughlin evokes the distinction between relative and intrinsic purposiveness (teleol-
ogy) to makes this clear. According to the second condition, functions are contributions
to some good, but what makes a thing a good? Quite often a thing is a good because
it serves some other good. This relative purposiveness leads to a regress: something is
good because it is good for some other thing that is good because it is good for some
other thing that is good because . . . . In order to ground function attribution this regress
must be stopped. McLaughlin argues that natural selection cannot stop this regress.
Natural selection produces traits that are good for producing progeny. But natural se-
lection does not explain why producing progeny is good. For that reason, an appeal to

natural selection cannot ground function attribution. Self-maintenance, however, does

stop the regress. Self-maintaining systems (such as organisms) have a good for their
own (namely to maintain themselves) and can thus stop the regress and ground function
So the relevant presupposition seems to be that the systems to which functions are
attributed are continuously replacing and repairing their components. Such systems
remain the same whereas their components change. Up to now, I have called such systems
self-maintaining but McLaughlin prefers the term self-reproducing. This is somewhat
confusing because the term reproduction suggests the production of copies or the
generation of offspring. Self-reproducing molecules, for example, are molecules that
produce copies of themselves. However, this is not what McLaughlin intends. He uses
the term reproduction in its eighteenth century sense. In that time reproduction was
used in the sense of renewal or re-creation. Self-reproduction referred to the re-creation
of oneself out of new components.
The two main metaphysical worries about functional explanation one finds in the
philosophical literature are the fear that functional explanation assumes intentionality and
the fear that functional explanation assumes backward causation (i.e. some state or event
being produced by an event or state that occurs after it is produced). In McLaughlins
analysis it turns out that the real worry should be holistic causality. Self-reproduction
supposes that the parts influence the whole and the whole influences the parts. This is
the metaphysical price to be paid for functional explanation. McLaughlin is not going
to tell us whether this price should be paid or whether functional explanation should
be rejected. According to him it is the biologist rather than the philosopher who should
decide whether organisms can be conceptualized as self-reproducing systems.
McLaughlin has given us an original and daring account of functional explanation.
This account locates functions at the right level, namely at the level of the system of
which the parts have functions (this means in organismal biology at the organismal level,
in social science at the social level, and so on). This in contrast to selection theories which
locate functions at the level of (the history of) the ensemble of such systems. However,
I can think of several other alternatives that equally locate functions at the right level.
These alternatives come to mind if one recognizes that functions are sometimes attributed
to merely physical systems. For example, in particle physics it is standard to say that
neutrons glue the nucleus together. This is obviously a function attribution. Moreover,
this function explains why the neutrons are where they are: had neutrons not had the
capacity to hold the nucleus together, they wouldnt have been in the nucleus. However,
atomic nuclei are not self-reproducing in McLaughlins sense. One alternative would
ground function talk in stability (including but not limited to self-maintenance). Another
would ground function talk in organization (including but not limited to being organized
for stability) (see Craver 2001; Wouters 2005b). These alternatives seem metaphysically
less problematic than function attributions on McLaughlins account. Admittedly, the
organization view does not fit with the intuition that ascribing a function to an item in
itself causally explains why the function bearer is what and where it is.
This brings me to a second comment. McLaughlin is only interested in the use of func-
tion attribution as causal explanations of why the function bearer is where and what it is.
He explicitly asserts that he has no objections against the idea of non-causal explanations.
However, he is not interested in this kind of explanations because such explanations do
not pose interesting metaphysical problems. This betrays a problem with his approach.

McLaughlin analyses the metaphysical suppositions of a certain use of function attribu-

tions, namely those cases where function attributions are seen as sufficient explanations
of why an item is what and where it is. However, it is not clear that this way of appealing
to functions is ever employed by biologists. Elsewhere (Wouters 1999) I have argued that
the reasonings of the kind that biologists call functional explanations (1) are much more
complex than most philosophers assume (a function attribution is usually only the first
step of a functional explanation), and (2) are not meant as causal explanations. I show this
by means of many examples. I would have been delighted with detailed examples of the
kind of functional explanations envisaged by McLaughlin. Disappointingly, McLaughlin
does not refer to even one real example. Like most philosophers he proceeds by analyzing
intuitions rather than by studying biologists. As a result, McLaughlins account runs the
risk of describing presuppositions of a way of using function attributions no biologist ever
McLaughlin himself clearly believes that biologists do use function attributions to
causally explain the where and how of the function bearer. He boldly claims that bi-
ologists are committed to the suppositions of self-reproduction and holistic causality,
as long as they do not explicitly adhere to an alternative view of function (p. 90,
190, 121). I fail to see why this is the case. McLaughlin outlines the metaphysical
suppositions of some intuitive, everyday notion of function. However, the biologists
commitments when using a certain concept are determined by the manner in which
they use that concept, not by the extent to which they explicitly reject everyday in-
tuitions. I would think that an important part of the training of biologists consists in
implicitly learning to use the concept of function in ways that differ from everyday
However, McLaughlins fascinating account of organisms as self-maintaining sys-
tems is important, even if one has doubts about his idea that functional explanation is
grounded in self-maintenance. One reason is that his account could improve our under-
standing of both eighteenth and nineteenth century biology and of the analogy between
organisms and society that was influential in the social science of the nineteenth cen-
tury (see also Wouters 1993). Another reason is that self-maintenance is an important
component of a definition of life. McLaughlin takes it for granted that an account of
what grounds biological function is at the same time an account of what it is to be a
living organism. However, it is not clear why this should be so. Life can be viewed as
a subset of the things that have functions. This view allows for grounding function in
organization, whilst accounting for life as a special kind of organized system, namely as
systems that are organized for self-maintenance.

Craver, C.F. (2001). Role functions, mechanisms, and hierarchy. Philosophy of Science 68: 5374.
Wouters, A.G. (1993). Marxs embryology of society. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 23:
Wouters, A.G. (1999). Explanation without a Cause. Utrecht University. Ph.D. thesis.
Wouters, A.G. (2005a). The function debate in philosophy. Acta Biotheoretica 53: 123151.

Wouters, A.G. (2005b). The functional perspective of organismal biology. In: T.A.C. Reydon and
L. Hemerik (Eds.), Current Themes in Theoretical Biology: A Dutch Perspective. Springer,
Dordrecht. p. 3369.

Arno Wouters
Heyendaal Institute Nijmegen
The Netherlands