The next series of 4 or so posts will be addressed to looking at marriage from a Darwinian perspective.
I. Etiological Functions
Darwinism is usually thought of as a way to understand why things change, but it equally explains why things endure. Hearts continue to exist and be copied across generations because they continue to be an effective way of pumping blood. We continue to use the sound associated with “dog” to refer to dogs because it continues to be an effective way of bringing our listener’s attention to dogs. We continue to manufacture screwdrivers because they continue to be an effective way at turning screws, and so on. That is why these things continue to be reproduced. In the philosophical literature, the effect that an item produces that causes it to be selected for reproduction is called its etiological function, or teleofunction, or proper function. This approach to understanding function was pioneered by Wright (1973), but it was Millikan’s landmark 1984 Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories that opened the floodgates of interest in functions because Millikan revived interest in how the application of a theory of function could do serious work in addressing philosophical disputes. According to the etiological approach, the possession of a function is not a matter of possessing a certain property or set of properties but the possession of a certain history; there must be a history of 1. selection resulting in 2. reproduction in order for an item to be considered to be in the possession of a function. A feature of an item is a reproduction in this sense if the presence of that feature is the result of the workings of natural law such that had a previous item (the ancestor) been different in that respect the other item (the descendent) would differ accordingly. Picture the way the color patterns of a chameleon’s skin match the surface upon which it sits. If the surface had been a different color, the chameleon’s skin would differ accordingly (assuming the chameleon’s pigment arrangers are working as designed). Further examples are the way that the characters on the paper that come out of a photocopier correspond in shape to the characters that are on the originals, or the way that children’s genes are copies of their parents’ genes.
The selection requirement for the possession of a function is the Darwinian process by which an item or feature is passed on because it has sufficiently often produced some effect that has contributed to the item’s successful reproduction as opposed to items lacking this feature. Those properties that are reproduced because in the past their ancestors have had a certain effect which lead to successful reproduction are called the reproductively established character of the item, and the effect in question is the function of the item. In short, to understand an item’s etiological function is to understand that which its ancestors did that accounts for the item’s reproduction as opposed to items lacking that feature. In the case of biological items such as organs or inherited behaviors such as mating displays, the function is that effect an item’s ancestors had that accounted for the proliferation of the genes responsible for its production. One’s genes are copies of one’s parents’ genes, and the genes that produce hearts have been selected by natural selection because they produce hearts. Hearts themselves contribute to the increased likelihood that an individual’s genes will be passed on due to that fact that they pump blood, not because they make “lub-dub” sounds, or squish when they are stepped on, or freeze when put into liquid nitrogen, or any of a million other things.
Items other than genes and their biological products may have etiological functions as the theory merely requires that the reproductively established character to have been selected for reproduction because it has correlated with some effect more positively than items lacking this feature. Millikan, for example, claims that the imperative and indicative linguistic moods possess the functions to produce behavior and to produce true beliefs respectively (see LTOBC: ch. 3). Likewise, a learned behavior can have a function if it is reproduced because it has led to a reward; it being the function of the behavior to bring about this result, and a manufactured good such as a screwdriver can have turning screws as its function since it is this ability that has lead to the selection and reproduction of screwdrivers in manufacturing.
I am not aware that any of the proponents of etiological theories of function have publicly claimed that in addition to biological items, artifacts, and behaviors, social institutions may have functions as well, and yet they do meet the requirements. For example, it seems natural to say that a police department has as its function the prevention of the breaking of the law. Suppose a town has grown large enough and that crime has become sufficiently problematic so as to require a police department. It is likely that this new institution will be reproduced by the townspeople on the model of previous departments existing in other towns. Thus the reproduction requirement for the possession of an etiological function is met. The selection requirement will be met in that the reason features of previous police departments will be copied is because they have historically proven to be an effective method of preventing crime. Examples are the sending out of officers on patrol, training programs for prospective officers, systems of rank among members of the force, the provision for a place to incarcerate suspects, and so on. Since these features are selected for reproduction because of their historical ability to prevent crime, that is their function. If the residents decide not to copy features from their knowledge of police departments in other towns, and instead decide to create entirely new forms in the hope that this will reduce crime by trial and error, then these new features would have what Millikan calls a derived proper function until they are reproduced for their success at which time they acquire a direct function.
In general, functional social institutions spring up wherever there is a recurring social problem in need of a solution: children to be educated in schools, the sick to be healed in hospitals, crime to be prevented with police, wars to be won by armies, etc. In the case of biological items or artifacts, the reproductively established character of the item is a property; it is that a hammer’s hardness, shape, and resiliency are able to produce the effect of driving nails that these properties are copied in the process of manufacture. In the case of social institutions, it is not properties but behaviors that are reproduced for their effect of preventing or solving the problem in question. Police officers repeat the behaviors of going out on patrol, apprehending suspects, and the like. These repeated behaviors which have often enough produced such-and-such an effect in the past are the duties or obligations of the institution. Sometimes but not always the requirement to perform these behaviors is made explicit in the education or training that is required by those taking on the position, and failure to perform these behaviors results in the imposition of a sanction.
To inquire concerning the etiological function of a social institution is not to provide a conceptual analysis of the concept, but is to approach it the way a biologist would try to understand the presence of some feature or behavior. It is to answer the question, why is this feature there? What does it do that accounts for its continued reproduction? Why hasn’t it died out over the centuries and millennia? What ancient and continually recurring problem does it solve that explains why it has proven valuable to keep around? That is the question I will address in this series of posts: why hasn’t marriage died out? What is its etiological function? What effect does produce that keeps it valuable to keep around? What enduring problem is solved by having male/female pairs take on the obligation to form a lasting relationship?
We will look into that in part 2.