Form or function?

It is a question for all ages; one that today continues to pervade much decision-making within wider government in general and Defra in particular. It may hold the key to the policies we make and implement to ensure ecosystem survival.

As the environmental historian, Chris Smout, has pointed out in his book Nature Contested, it is an ancient question that can be traced back to classical poets such as Horace. Form or function – which is more important?

Signalling is a useful barometer of fitness - so long as that signal is honest

Signalling is a useful barometer of fitness – so long as that signal is honest

We all struggle with this question to greater or lesser extents. When we buy a car, what is most important to us? – Racy lines; a striking colour; the promise of adventure via 4-wheel drive (even if such a function is never actually used)? When we reduce a car down to its basics, it is a metal box with a wheel at four corners, and an engine to drive it along. Its function, at least to me, is to get people from one place to another in reasonable comfort, safety and speed. I’ve never bought into the idea of cars being objects of aesthetic desire. To me, when it comes to cars, function is much more important than form.

There are so many other kinds of consumer products that favour form over function. I suspect that it could be argued that one can have both. Product functionality embodied within a form that is also aesthetically attractive must be the ideal combination for the marketing executive. The question left in my mind, and why I doubt the motives of those who focus on form alone, is that such a focus can blind people to the deficiencies of function. A car can look wonderful but under the surface it can be old technology that is environmentally damaging. One can become beguiled by form, and end up compromising on function. I suspect this happens a lot.

My father also struggled with this function-form problem. When I was quite young he took me to Bettyhill in Strathnaver close to north tip of mainland Scotland to seeking out the Scottish primrose, an endemic species to the area. He was a conservationist who was embroiled in the process of embedding the principles of conservation in to the public service during the decades following the Second World War. The pilgrimage to Bettyhill was mainly to remind him why he was making himself unpopular an era when the “white heat of technology” was driving decision-making and, as it happened, was responsible for constructing a fast-breeder nuclear reactor not far along the coast at Dounreay. These were the days before powerful NGOs held decision-makers to account, making my father part of the thin line of defence against the overpowering march of function over form. When constructing the principles under which new developments might be approved and governed, he would privately ask himself the question whether those principles would help to save Primula scotica.

The Scottish primrose is still very much to the fore today. Human expansionism has not yet wiped out this delicate little flower although many other parts of the biodiversity of our planet are at risk, or have disappeared. My father was, of course, using the Scottish primrose as an allegory for biodiversity as a whole. It was his way of staying focused on the functional outcome of his efforts rather than the form of the primrose in particular. It was how he brought his own humanity to bear on a very utilitarian problem, although he lacked the scientific evidence about the environmental damage that could be done by unregulated industrial development. In this case the depiction of function through the medium of form was a way of exploring the trade-offs between very different functional issues – the use of natural resources versus the degradation this caused to the environment that sustains us.

The signalling of function through form is all around us in the natural world. A peacock’s tail is a signal of his fitness. The brightness of plumage colour of a blue tit signals fitness to resist parasites. Throughout the natural world we see adornments like this as forms that have been adopted because they signal a particular fitness for function. Dishonesty in this signalling of fitness for function through form is generally rooted out by natural selection.

This function versus form allegory came to the fore again at the end of February this year because of the work of the International Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem function (IPBES), a UN-led effort to put the scientific assessment of global biodiversity on the same footing as has been achieved by the work of the IPCC.

The IPBES chose to focus its first global biodiversity assessment on the state of pollinators, a group of organisms – mainly composed of insects including our much-loved bees – that is essential for the fertilization of plants including many types that are important foods. The messages from the assessment are loud and clear: that there is a problem. In this case, pollinators are the allegory for all biodiversity, but because they are something that we see having direct value, or function, it is more likely that we will do something to correct their decline. That action alone could do much to protect biodiversity as a whole, by protecting species that could be functionally important in ways we are not yet aware of.

IPBES itself embodies this function-form debate even within its own name. They focus on trying to describe the relationship between biodiversity and the functioning of ecological systems in terms of the goods they produce. Like the cars we drive, we need to know how much loss of form can be sustained before the function declines. For cars, I suspect that colour has very little impact on function, whereas the streamlining of the body work might have a greater impact. Like the peacock’s tail there is a signalling component in the cars we choose to drive, but how much is this really functional and how much of the signalling is dishonest?

Research is making rapid progress towards helping us understand what species in ecological systems are more or less critical to healthy function. While our knowledge is improving continuously we still need icons of form to fall back on to help guide us towards the functional outcome. That is why I spent most of my research career study marine mammals. Like the Scottish primrose and other visible manifestations of ecosystem health like birds, elephants, fish stocks or bees they provide indicators of ecosystem health that help us stay on track. Research is allowing us to better understand whether those signals are honest depictions of their critical function in ecosystems.

I remain convinced that function trumps form any day, but as a pragmatist I am happy to see the use of these indicators of biodiversity to guide our understanding on whether ecosystems are functioning as they should be.