Stud Hist Philos Sci. 2021 Apr 11;87:125-135. doi: 10.1016/j.shpsa.2021.03.005. Online ahead of print.
Fitness contribution alone should not be the criterion of ‘function’ in molecular biology and genomics. Disagreement over the use of ‘function’ in molecular biology and genomics is still with us, almost eight years after publicity surrounding the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements project claimed that 80.4% of the human genome comprises “functional elements”. Recent approaches attempt to resolve or reformulate this debate by redefining genomic ‘function’ in terms of current fitness contribution. In its favour, this redefinition for the genomic context is in apparent conformity with predominant experimental practices, especially in biomedical research, and with ascription of function by selective maintenance. We argue against approaches of this kind, however, on the grounds that they could be seen as non-Darwinian, and fail to properly account for the diversity of non-adaptive processes involved in the origin and maintenance of genomic complexity. We examine cases of molecular and organismal complexity that arise neutrally, showing how purifying selection maintains non-adaptive genomic complexity. Rather than lumping different sorts of genomic complexity together by defining ‘function’ as fitness contribution, we argue that it is best to separate the heterogeneous contributions of preaptation, exaptation and adaptation to the historical processes of origin and maintenance for complex features.