Functional homology and homology of function: Biological concepts and philosophical consequences

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"Functional homology" appears regularly in different areas of biological research and yet it is apparently a contradiction in terms - homology concerns identity of structure regardless of form and function. I argue that despite this conceptual tension there is a legitimate conception of 'homology of function', which can be recovered by utilizing a distinction from pre-Darwinian physiology (use versus activity) to identify an appropriate meaning of 'function'. This account is directly applicable to molecular developmental biology and shares a connection to the theme of hierarchy in homology. I situate 'homology of function' within existing definitions and criteria for structural assessments of homology, and introduce a criterion of 'organization' for judging function homologues, which focuses on hierarchically interconnected interdependencies (similar to relative position and connection for skeletal elements in structural homology). This analysis of biological concepts has at least three broad philosophical consequences: (1) it provides the grounds for the study of behavior and psychological categories as homologues; (2) it demonstrates that philosophers who take selected effect function as primary effectively ignore large portions of comparative, structural, and experimental research, thereby misconstruing biological reasoning and knowledge; and, (3) it underwrites causal generalizations, which illuminates inferences made from model organisms in experimental biology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)691-708
Number of pages18
JournalBiology and Philosophy
Issue number5
StatePublished - Nov 1 2007


  • Activity
  • Developmental biology
  • Epistemology
  • Function
  • Homology
  • Structural biology


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