South African Journal of Philosophy

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Explaining Biological Functionality: Is Control Theory Enough?

J Collier


It is generally agreed that organisms are Complex Adaptive Systems. Since the rise of Cybernetics in the middle of the last century ideas from information theory and control theory have been applied to the adaptations of biological organisms in order to explain how they work. This does not, however, explain functionality, which is widely but not universally attributed to biological systems. There are two approaches to functionality, one based on etiology (what a trait was selected for), and the other based in autonomy. I argue that the etiological approach, as understood in terms of control theory, suffers from a problem of symmetry, by which function can equally well be placed in the environment as in the organism. Focusing on the autonomy view, I note that it can be understood to some degree in terms of control theory in its version called second order cybernetics. I present an approach to second order cybernetics that seems plausible for organisms with limited computational power, due to Hooker, Penfold and Evans. They hold that this approach gives something like concepts, certainly abstractions from specific situations, a trait required for functionality in its system adaptive form (i.e., control of the system by itself). Using this cue, I argue that biosemiotics provides the methodology to incorporate these quasi concepts into an account of functionality.
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