Philosophers of biology have developed an extensive literature on biological functions. Here I propose a treatment of the topic based in social studies of science. I posit that the chief philosophical accounts of biological functions all rest upon a realist ontology of biological functions, one that conceives functions as human-independent qualities of things. Rather than being conceptualised as a property of traits or structures, function should be understood as a status granted by communities acting in accordance with specific domains of knowledge and practice. Function becomes not a property of things, but a collective good: not of things, but by communities. I survey the existing explanations of biological functions from the philosophical literature and identify what I take to be those accounts’ shared complications. I then employ Martin Kusch’s communitarian epistemology as a point of departure for a sociological conception of function and develop an explanation of function that rests on an understanding of it, as a status granted by epistemic communities. I follow by illustrating the usefulness of my account by means of a case study from synthetic biology—a nascent field of bioengineering. Finally, I discuss function as a conferred status deeply involved in collective ordering practices.
- synthetic biology
- philosophy of biology