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24, chemin de Borde Rouge –Auzeville – CS52627
31326 Castanet Tolosan CEDEX - France

Dernière mise à jour : Mai 2018

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Functionnal Ecology Conference

Function at the organism level

A brief essay written by Jacques Roy (CNRS)

In biology, a function is ‘the special, normal, proper physiological activity of a body part or an organ’ ( This is an operational process, for example the function of the lungs is to oxygenate the blood. The goal oriented acceptance of function is also used is biology: the function of sugar allocation to nectar is to attract pollinators. It is used in an evolutionary context and refers to the adaptive value of given processes.  Peter Calow (1987) among others refuted the teleological drawback of this acceptance (the purpose of a function is its contribution to the survivorship and fecundity of the organism with that function) and the associated possible Panglossian trap (adaptation is not perfect because evolution lags behind changing environments and is constrained by various mechanisms).

With this evolutionary framework, the successful Functional Biology book series and Functional Ecology journal, both initiated by P. Calow, highly contributed to the spread of the term ‘functional’. These two scientific media are definitely organism orientated. It is about ‘how organisms acquire and then make use of resources in metabolisms, movement, growth, reproduction, and so on’ (Calow 1984). The term function emphasizes i)’process rather than just property ‘, ii) ‘trophic interdependence of the parts and the “role” they play in the economy of the whole’ and iii) the fact that ‘organisms are outcomes of an evolutionary process driven by natural selection’ (Calow 1987).