There are two general approaches to characterising biological functions. One originates with Cummins. According to this approach, the function of a part of a system is just its causal contribution to some specified activity of the system. Call this the ‘C-function’ (or ‘Cummins function’) concept. The other approach ties the function of a trait to some aspect of its evolutionary significance. Call this the ‘E-function’ (or ‘evolutionary function’) concept. According to the latter view, a trait's function is determined by the forces of natural selection. The C-function and E-function concepts are clearly quite different, but there is an important relation between them which heretofore has gone unnoticed. The purpose of this paper is to outline that relation.
This is not the first paper to discuss the relation of C-function and E-function. Previous attempts all follow either one of two strategies. The first proposes that the two concepts are ‘unified.’ The other proposes that they are radically distinct and apply to wholly different fields within biology.