The relativity of biological function

Manfred Laubichler, Peter F. Stadler, Sonja J. Prohaska, Katja Nowick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Function is a central concept in biological theories and explanations. Yet discussions about function are often based on a narrow understanding of biological systems and processes, such as idealized molecular systems or simple evolutionary, i.e., selective, dynamics. Conflicting conceptions of function continue to be used in the scientific literature to support certain claims, for instance about the fraction of “functional DNA” in the human genome. Here we argue that all biologically meaningful interpretations of function are necessarily context dependent. This implies that they derive their meaning as well as their range of applicability only within a specific theoretical and measurement context. We use this framework to shed light on the current debate about functional DNA and argue that without considering explicitly the theoretical and measurement contexts all attempts to integrate biological theories are prone to fail.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)143-147
Number of pages5
JournalTheory in Biosciences
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Dec 1 2015


  • Biological function
  • Biological theory
  • Coarse graining
  • Theory integration

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Statistics and Probability
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Applied Mathematics


Dive into the research topics of 'The relativity of biological function'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this