Target Article: Are biological traits explained by their ‘selected effect’ functions?


The selected effects or ‘etiological’ theory of Proper function is a naturalistic and realist account of biological teleology. It is used to analyse normativity in philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, philosophy of medicine and elsewhere. The theory has been developed with a simple and intuitive view of natural selection. Traits are selected because of their positive effects on the fitness of the organisms that have them. These ‘selected effects’ are the Proper functions of the traits. Proponents argue that this analysis of biological teleology has the unique advantage that the selected effect function of a trait is also a causal explanation of the trait: the trait exists because it performs this function. We show, however, that selected effect functions as currently defined explain the existence of traits only under highly restrictive assumptions about evolutionary dynamics. In many common scenarios in which traits evolve by natural selection, selected effect functions do not explain those traits. This is because definitions of selected effect function extract from any evolutionary scenario only the information that would be explanatorily relevant in the simple evolutionary scenario implicit in those definitions. When applied to more complex scenarios selected effect functions omit the key information that is explanatorily relevant in those scenarios. The assumptions required for selected effect functions to be explanatory are particularly unlikely to hold in the domain that its proponents care most about - the evolution of representation. A more adequate selected effects theory of Proper functions may be possible, but will require much greater attention to the structure of actual evolutionary explanations.

Australasian Philosophical Review
Pierrick Bourrat
Pierrick Bourrat
Senior Lecturer & DECRA Fellow

My research interests include the various concepts deployed in evolutionary theory, causation, and the interplay between biological and cultural evolution.