Posts filed under ‘Biology’

Natural vs. Organic Functions– Review: Peter McLaughlin, What Functions Explain

In my previous post, I described the importance of a significance criteria for function ascriptions. My primary example was dueling function ascriptions for the Milky Way Galaxy. I argued that a natural function ascription for solid matter in the Milky Way Galaxy was a more significant explanation for the existence of solid matter, and the Galaxy, than an ascribing a biocentric (artifactual) function to the Galaxy. This argument rests on a presupposition that I did not explore however– that it makes sense to explain the functions of natural, but inorganic, entities at all.

Peter McLaughlin, whose What Functions Explain has spurred this series of posts, does not think that this presupposition of mine makes sense. Or at least that is the message I take from his late discussion of inorganic replicators in his book. McLaughlin writes that, “it makes no sense to speak of the function of some molecular substructure of a crystal, but we are not committed to the belief that the crystal somehow ‘benefits’ from being replicated” (2001, p. 181). Partially submerged in both of my previous posts on functional explanation is the idea that the split between natural and artifactual functions is a bit of a misnomer. In fact, the split seems to be much more between artifactual and organic functions, and so discussing functional explanation in terms of natural/artificial instead of natural/organic is a mistake. Merely being natural does not mean that something has a function, according to McLaughlin, but all organic entities do seem to have a function. McLaughlin seems to recognise this problem in his last few chapters, as once he has restricted the possession of functions to self-reproducing systems that have goods he begins to talk more in terms of organic entities that have functions and less in terms of natural entities that have them. To a degree, this problem is about semantics– if you don’t mean to include everything that falls under the category “natural”, use a different category, like “organic”!– but in a more important sense, the semantic problem reveals a real issue. Why don’t inorganic but natural entities have functions?

I think the split has been drawn between natural and artificial not just because it has a nice, dualistic ring to it, but because the terminology actually captures an important topic of metaphysics. There is a real difference between what it means for an artifact to have a function and what it means for a natural entity to have one. And, to add the kicker, that includes inorganic, but natural entities, such as the Milky Way. In my previous two posts, I have borrowed from McLaughlin function definitions that he ascribes to other authors, especially C.G. Hempel. But in the last (and very impressive) chapter, McLaughlin lets loose with a definition of his own. Answering the challenge posed in the book’s title, McLaughlin writes that functions explain “the existence and properties of those parts of a self-reproducing system that contribute to the self-reproduction of that system. What functions explain is systems whose identity conditions consist in the constant replacement, repair, and reproduction of their component parts” (2001, p. 209). This definition is meant to encapsulate organic functions only— artifactual functions are relative to the valuations of valuing agents, and (to repeat) it just makes no sense to think of the parts of inorganic systems as having functions.

I maintain that they do, and with alterations even McLaughlin’s definition of functional explanation can be made to accommodate them. Consider again my example of a system of extremely large scale– the Milky Way Galaxy. Then, expand the scale even further to that of the universe. According to most currently accepted cosmological theory, the universe is expanding, and has been since the Big Bang. Now, take the first half of McLaughlin’s definition of functional explanation– that functions explain “the existence and properties of those parts of a self-reproducing system that contribute to the self-reproduction of that system”– and integrate that thought with the idea that the universe is expanding. The universe is expanding, and (barring a misunderstanding, which, given the subject, seems almost inevitable), this means that there are parts of the universe that contribute to that expansion. These parts are parts of a self-reproducing system (the universe), that by their very existence, contribute to the self-reproduction and expansion of that system. Note that this would not be the case if the universe was in a steady state or in the process of collapsing into a Big Crunch sometime in the future.

There are clearly some enormous, massive difficulties in the details of this example. We don’t know what the stuff is that is causing the universe to expand. Some (a very small amount) of that universe seems to be matter of the kind with which we are used to dealing– solids, liquids, and gases– but most of it is apparently other stuff. Because I am not an expert Cosmologist, I cannot hope to explain these details. The expert cosmologists themselves seem to be at a loss, as well, but at least they have some ideas of how to work on these problems. What is important for my use of this popularly scientific understanding of cosmology is this: the Universe, the largest natural, physical, and (largely) non-living thing that can be conceived, seems to be a system that has parts that have functions. Many of those parts, being the structure of the universe, are just like it– they are natural and non-living. Yet they seem to be function bearers, at least with the first half of McLaughlin’s definition in mind.

At this point, you might be wondering if the universe, as a system, satisfies the second part of McLaughlin’s definition. Is the universe the sort of system “whose identity conditions consist in the constant replacement, repair, and reproduction of [its] component parts”? The rub for non-living systems in the definition seems to be the criteria of “replacement” and “repair”, included by McLaughlin in order to 1) distinguish natural functions from artifactual functions and 2) generalise the causal feedback loop required by functional explanations from requiring natural selection (which itself requires inter-generational reproduction) to intra-generational processes like the gradual maintenance of organs in living creatures (McLaughlin, 2001, pp. 179-190) This itself is an adaptation of a Maynard-Smith’s conditions for life, namely replication, regeneration, metabolism, and growth (Maynard-Smith, 1986). Regeneration, repair, or maintenance– no matter how you formulate the condition, it does not seem as if it is the kind of thing that can be assigned, broadly, to most parts of the universe. Which is why I suggest that we jettison the repair condition.

My motive for this is that parts of natural, non-living systems do seem to have functions. For the most part, except for this one criteria, parts of such systems meet the requirements that must be met by function bearers. The reason that I think natural, non-living entities should be included as possible subjects of functional explanation is that such explanation can be useful in providing more information about the universe. We are paying a heavy explanatory cost by limiting (severely limiting!) functional explanation of natural entities to living entities. Most of the universe is non-living, and we need all the information about it that we can get.

We do have to go about this sort of explanation in the right way. To lower the metaphysical costs of functional explanation, as well as to make the explanation more complete, we should be careful to limit (if not eliminate) intentional teleology, as well as anthro- or bio-centric perspectives, from functional explanations. Appealing to causal feedback loops as a primary ingredient of functions is currently the best way to achieve this goal. It is also important to keep the distinction between natural and artifactual functions, as one has an internal teleology and the other an external teleology, related to that of an external valuing agent. The primary objection to jettisoning the repair condition from a definition of natural functions is that by doing so one not only brings in natural but non-living entities but also artifacts. How do I propose to keep the distinction between natural and artifactual functions while rejecting the repair criteria? By building in a significance criteria. To get the most information out of an explanation, we should employ the variety of functional explanation that has the most significance for the system being explained. For a bicycle, an artifactual explanation is the most significant, and for the universe, a natural explanation is the most significant. It is not necessary to build into our definition of function that there is a distinction between artifacts, living entities, and non-living entities. We lose much by insisting that only one kind of functional explanation is possible for artifacts, another is possible for living entities, and no functional explanation is possible at all for non-living, natural entities. If we are truly motivated to accept a definition of functional explanation with the greatest explanatory range and power, and the lowest metaphysical cost, then we should not require that the subjects of such explanation be living if they are natural.

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July 27, 2009 at 5:45 pm Leave a comment

Reading List- 6-9-09

When I graduated a few weeks ago, I was very excited about the prospect of reading fiction. So I ran through Haruki Murakami’s excellent The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. But about 3/4 of  the way through, I was already back to nonfiction. I blame Raven Used Books in Harvard Sq. Jerks sell unmarked copies of current philosophy of biology texts on the cheap.

So, the current reading list is this:

Edward Said, Orientalism

I’m borrowing this one from our housemate, but I might as well be borrowing it from Nateene. So far I’m two chapters in, but Said writes in long form and with incredible style. I’ve tried starting on Orientalism before, but gave up. This time, it’s personal. Really, though, this is about the West’s perception and construction of the Orient, and how that has actually affected the orient that’s out there. On this reading, it’s sounding a strong note of caution for reaserch that I hope to do on the attitudes towards evolution possessed by people from Muslim cultures.

Philip Kitcher, In Mendel’s Mirror

As this is an essay collection, I’ve read a few of these before. I’m reading those essays, and others of Kitcher’s, again. It seems like a very good collection, and I can see it coming in handy for future courses that I plan to take in philosophy of biology.

Peter McLaughlin, What Functions Explain

Although filled cover to cover with difficult and frequently esoteric material and terminology, this is the best book-length piece of philosophy of science that I’ve read in a few months. It’s about teleology in philosophy, biology, artifacts, and all sorts of other areas. It covers a range of treatments of teleology and teleological thought, from Aristotle to Kant in some of the earlier chapters through Hempel and Nagel in the chapter I’m currently reading. There’s also a lot of original material and argument from the author.

I’ve been especially excited by this book because it offers a different entry point into issues of scientific and philosophical explanation. The investigation of what counts as a good explanation, what it means to explain something, is a classic issue of philosophy of science (if a domain so young can have classic issues). The trouble is that I don’t have the stamina to read through Carnap’s Aufbau or another Logical Positivist/Empiricist text on my own, when I’m supposed to be on a bit of an academic break. McLaughlin’s book is just accessible enough while being so technical as to be interesting and curious.

Gary Gregg, The Middle East: A Cultural Psychology

Orientalism is a good companion to this book. Written in 2005, this is one of the most current attempts to sketch a psychology of the Middle Eastern/North African region (Gregg refers throughout the book to the region as MENA, to distance himself from the tradition of considering the Middle East as a monolith). It’s a very thorough treatment of the area, at least for its size- at 365 pages, Gregg fits in chapters on the Social Ecology of MENA and chapters on psychological development from early childhood through adulthood. Gregg is very sensitive to the task of characterizing the psychology of a region with diverse geography and cultures, but is general modest in his claims and provides more descriptive material (for example, average number of months Middle Eastern mothers spend breast feeding) than conjecture (as to the effect of this breast feeding on the character of the people of MENA). Of course, he has to draw some conclusions… but the care with which he supports them makes me feel more confident that the information is reliable.

June 9, 2009 at 2:04 pm 1 comment

Population Thinking for Epistemology

One of my first posts on this blog was about essentialism. For some reason, Google has since picked up the keywords in the article, and it is a popular result for people looking for “essentialism” “philosophy” and “biology”. This has mystified me, because it simply is not a very informative post. If people were looking for a reference on any of those subjects, they would do better to look elsewhere.

For a long time, I have been vowing to write a better and more original post on essentialism in philosophy. This is that post, but it is still not a reference on philosophy, essentialism, or biology. For more information on essentialism, I would encourage everyone to check out John Wilkins’ brief discussion of the subject over at TalkOrigins, here.

This post concerns essentialism not in biology, but in philosophy. And I do not mean Platonic or Aristotelian essentialism; although the roots of essentialism in biology lie in part with the ancient Greeks, I think few philosophers today would say they consider truth in the same way as Plato or Aristotle. I want to discuss essentialism as the term has come to have meaning in biology in the 1930s and 40s, and in philosophy since philosophers have decided to turn their interests to modern biology. Ernst Mayr contrasted essentialist or typological thinking with population thinking in biology, as I mentioned in my previous post, but in discussing essentialism I think philosophers have failed to do the same.

What do I mean? Well, essentialism is primarily about identity, truth, and our capacity to recognize truth in a world in transition. Essentialism concerns knowledge of the characteristics that identify something, whether that thing is a species, a concept, or a person. In contrast to this, Mayr placed population thinking, whereby there is no one single organism that is a perfect model of a species, because that was not what a species is. A species consists of a population of organisms with varying traits. This makes life difficult, but not as difficult as looking for the perfect Gazelle and accordingly classifying all other Gazelles as flawed, but close enough.

Of course, philosophy doesn’t usually work in terms of Gazelles or other organisms. Philosophy deals in concepts, explanations, and other such abstractions. Because of this, I think that philosophers have traditionally focused more on essentialism than population thinking. Philosophers of biology bring both up at the same time, as I have, but when essentialism is discussed in other philosophical contexts population thinking is not mentioned. As in my original post on essentialism, philosophers in more traditional fields like epistemology and metaphysics discuss essentialism as something to be avoided, perhaps, as a pitfall or a fallacy. Sometimes, it seems as if “essentialism” is just to be equated with “oversimplification”.

Population thinking should be involved when essentialism is discussed, however, because it is an alternative to essentialist/typological thinking. How, then, should population thinking figure into the minds of, say, epistemologists? On the one hand, there is what the concept of population thinking actually consists of, which is interesting for sure. On the other, perhaps population thinking has something to say about how we should go about seeking knowledge. In most accounts of knowledge, truth is the goal, the primary ingredient, always an essential part. But truth itself resists explanation; it is what is accurate to the world, intuitive, plausible, and correct. The other bits of knowledge should be truth-seeking or conducive to finding the truth. And, unlike the populations of organisms that make up a species, there can be only one truth. There are arguments for truth pluralism, to be sure, but I can’t say they convince me. A problem for epistemologists and humans everywhere is that finding the truth, singular and perfect, is extremely difficult.

Extremely.

My proposal, then, is this: we should certainly not stop looking for truth, but perhaps we need some waystations before we arrive at it. Population thinking may be able to help us find these way stations. As has been pointed out and rehashed by many philosophers, relying on natural selection to find the truth may not be the best way to go about the search, because fitness ensures survival, not necessarily knowledge. Natural selection alone has not shaped humans into the ultimate truth-seekers. But, to paraphrase one of Karl Popper’s famous metaphors, perhaps humanity is lost on an endless, darkened plain. About this plane are scattered lanterns, all with different ranges of illumination. We can only pick up one at a time, and it is difficult (although not impossible) to tell if one we come upon provides more light than the one we hold. So we go about picking up lanterns and sometimes, after a short or long distance, we have to go back to one we dropped back along the way.

So we are lost in a population of lanterns. But perhaps some may be judged, on sight, as better in some ways than others. We might not be able to judge for truth (as I am not sure we know truth when we see it), but perhaps we can specify the fitness criteria of the better lanterns before we set ours down and pick a new one up. Perhaps, given the range of theories scientific and philosophical, it would be best to leave aside truth for a while and set our energies towards defining new optimums and examining our populations of theories for those.

June 8, 2009 at 1:29 pm 1 comment

Punctuated Equilibria and 100 Year Floods

Are concepts like 100 year floods related to punctuated equilibrium?

Here’s what I mean: “100 year flood” refers to the probability of a flood of a certain size happening not once in a hundred years, but its probability of occuring within a given timeframe. So, within a given year, there is a certain probability of there being a flood the size of a “100 year flood”. This is opposed to the idea that a flood of such size will occur once within the period of a hundred years.

Punctuated equilibria, on the other hand, refers to rates of evolution and speciation. If speciation occurs more in fits and starts rather than through a more gradualistic model, then the number of species existant exists in an equilibria punctuated by sudden change.

One clear difference between the two ideas is that one is impacted by biological evolution and the other is impacted by climatic and meterological factors. I unfortunately do not have the keenest grasp on probability theory or statistics, but I suspect a similarity there. Rates of speciation refer to change amongst populations of organisms impacted by a variety of factors, climate amongst them. This concept importantly involves population thinking, but also “tree thinking” as described by Robert O’Hara in a paper here. The crux of the difference between 100 year floods and punctuated equilibria (aside from the disperate phenomena they seek to characterize) may be that, as of yet, the mechanisms governing speciation and climate are too different. Rates of speciation and recurrance intervals of floods both importantly concern the history of the phenomenon under consideration and use this to guide probabilistic descriptions of rates and recurrance, but ultimately the phenomena and mechanisms that impact the phenomena may be too different from one another.

June 5, 2009 at 9:45 pm Leave a comment

Polar Bear Jawbones and Science Coverage

Here’s the story: Professor Olafur Ingolfsson, of the University of Iceland, has unearthed an ancient polar bear jawbone on the Svalbard Archipelago in Norway. The jawbone holds significance for the natural history of polar bears as it could help date when polar bear speciation first occurred. It also might help us predict how the polar bear population might react to global warming, as the new discovery could show that the polar bear species has already endured one warming and cooling cycle. The BBC has a great article on it including quotes from Ingolfsson, details on Svalbard, and most especially the significance of the study. It even includes this stripped down phylogeny:

Basic Bear Phylogeny

They even cited the source from which they modified it. Excellent science journalism, and the first article on the subject to appear in the mass media (at least according to Google News). The author of the article, Jonathan Amos, makes no bones about geologic time or the explanatory role of evolution. I wish there were more articles like it in the popular media.

Which gave me an idea: as long as I started with the first article on the topic (and a great article, at that), why not compare this one with others to follow? Just start a study in miniature of the differences between media outlets. I’ve got a Google Alert set to update me as more news is released, so I’ll be posting edits to this post regularly.

5:30 pm edit: 5 hours after the news broke, the only article out there remains the BBC’s. Perhaps it’s my search– I’ve had an alert on the phrase “Polar Bear Jawbone” in all news sources. But broadening to “Polar Bear” only brings a bunch of stories on the Polar Bear Plunge, a benefit for the Special Olympics. I’ll stick to looking for jawbones.

9:30 pm edit: 9 hours after the news broke, there’s still nothing else on it. We’ll see if something happens in the Americas tomorrow– perhaps the next editions of newspapers will carry an article.

December 10, 2007 at 2:54 pm Leave a comment

Final Papers Might Equal More Posts

I’m in the midst of final papers. This should mean that my blog continues in its update dry spell. Instead, it probably signifies a increased volume of posts. I started this blog while writing my final papers at the end of spring semester, after all. Both developing thoughts and overflow might end up as new posts.

There are three topics on which I’m writing final papers, so the odds of posts materializing for any of them are good. For my Wittgenstein class, I’m writing a paper on Wittgenstinean Causation, with a focus on Wittgenstein’s influence on G.E.M. Anscombe’s “Causality and Determination”. For my class on Science and Religion, I’m writing a paper on Medieval Muslim views on causation. The primary figures of this comparative paper are Avicenna (Ibn Sina), Al-Ghazali, and Averroes (Ibn Rushd). For my Seminar in Ecology I might have some posts which lean closer to science than philosophy. I’m giving a presentation and writing an accompanying paper on Agave pollination syndromes with a focus on the coevolutionary aspects of this particular syndrome.

December 2, 2007 at 3:22 pm Leave a comment

Essentialism in Philosophy and Biology

UPDATE (6-8-09): I have a new, and better post up about philosophy, essentialism, and population thinking. Read this one if you must, but my most recent thoughts are here.

In the second paragraph of Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume describes philosophy as a field in the throes of essentialism. I mean essentialism in a sense parallel to how it is used in philosophy of biology; Hume describes it as a search for “original principles” rather then a search for the absolute essence or form of a being, but I think he is describing something very similar in origin. Both ideas have the same platonic origin, and it makes sense that this origin would hold far more sway in philosophy than biology. After all, Plato wasn’t much of a biologist, but nobody can argue against his philosophical influence.

An answer to essentialism in philosophy can be found in many places prior to Hume, although I think Nietzsche was the first to write with the goal of an explicit and comprehensive refutation of essentialism. Although Nietzsche wrote very powerfully, essentialism in philosophy is still very much alive and well. It seems to me, then, that philosophy can learn from how biology rejected essentialism and have since been operating without it.

Perhaps this comparison would help calm those who would cry that, “if philosophy is not after original causes, then what is it after?” After all, biology has flourished since the debate over essentialism has largely closed. Biologists also don’t seem to see its demise as some sort of postmodern obfuscation. If anything, biology has operated with a more clear and transparent conceptual framework since essentialist thinking was thrown out.

Although I have only limited experience reading Heidegger, I think that he represents a transformation of essentialism in philosophy. His work stands in contrast to Nietzsche’s in that he addresses essentialism as a concept which has been ambiguous in the history of philosophy, one which he wants to make transparent. Rather than reject essentialism, Heidegger seeks to change it into something for analytic study.

In his “Introduction to Metaphysics” Heidegger famously outlines the question of why there is being at all, instead of nothing. To thoroughly investigate the question, he first dedicates himself to clarifying its meaning. In this way he is attempting something similar to Darwin’s work of clarifying the meaning of affinity in biology. Rather than leave ideas like “natural and essential” as ambiguous terms in the definition of affinity, or terms with definitions that included the supernatural, Darwin described members of a taxon as similar because of common descent (a more eloquent explanation of this can be found on pg. 209 of Ernst Mayr’s The Growth of Biological Thought). Darwin was pursuing an explanation of an essential question, and answered it in way owing nothing to the supernatural and capable of further investigation. Heidegger’s work reflects the pursuit of an essential question in a similar manner.

The debate over essentialist thought in philosophy is very different from the similar debate in biology, but I think one can learn from the other. Essentialism in philosophy is a more complex idea with many more possibilities for transformation or refutation than it was in biology, but I can’t help thinking that philosophy as a field would benefit from a closer examination of the concept in philosophy of biology.

And who knows? Maybe I’m the person to do it.

August 28, 2007 at 4:27 pm 3 comments


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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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