Section 2.1 of the book Software Design for Flexibility (SDF) by Chris Hanson and Gerald Jay Sussman introduces function combinators that allow a programmer to describe basic functional components and combine them in order build a more complex system. The presented combinators compose functions in various ways, rearrange their arguments and curry them, and thus they let the programmer mix-and-match the basic functional components. The SDF authors compare this approach to biological systems that adapt to their environment by configuring their basic components (such as cells) in response to environmental changes.

In this blog post, I translate most examples from SDF Section 2.1 into JavaScript. The translation demonstrates the use of JavaScript’s rest and spread operators for defining a library of function combinators. Since these operators use arrays instead of Scheme’s lists, you get to see some JavaScript array processing, for example various ways to use the splice method for arrays. To keep things simple, I don’t cover the arity manipulation mechanisms of SDF Section 2.1. I skip the examples of the section Multiple values because JavaScript does not have a multiple-value return mechanism.

As usual, you can click on the links to play with the programs.

Composition of functions

The first combinator composes two functions. The composition yields a function c that first applies a given function g to c’s arguments, and then applies a given function f to the result, as shown in the following diagram (Figure 2.1 of SDF).

The JavaScript implementation of compose uses JavaScript’s rest syntax to gather the arguments of the composition into an array args, and the spread syntax to pass each component of the args array as a separate argument to g.

function compose(f, g) {
    return (...args) => f(g(...args));

The following example demonstrates the use of compose.

compose(x => ["foo", x],
        (x, y, z) => ["bar", x, y, z])("a", "b", "c");
// result: ["foo", ["bar", "a", "b", "c"]]

A digression: I personally find the asymmetry of this compose function quite unfortunate: g can take multiple arguments, but f only takes one. SDF mitigates the issue using Scheme’s multiple-value return mechanism later in Section 2.1. I find that mechanism rather cumbersome and much prefer the approach taken by “modern” functional programming languages such as OCaml and Haskell, where all functions take exactly one argument. Multiple arguments are passed either in compound data structures or by currying. Then the asymmetry disappears, and the combinators of this blog post all operate on compound data or curried functions that combine the intended arguments, rather than using JavaScript’s rest and spread operators or Scheme’s dot notation. Of course, that would require a major redesign of JavaScript/Scheme…

Unary functions (functions that take only one argument) can be repeatedly applied using the following function iterate.

function iterate(n) {
    return f =>
           n === 0
           ? identity 
           : compose(f, iterate(n - 1)(f));

The function iterate takes a number n as argument and returns a function that takes a function f as argument. When applied to a unary function as f, the result is a function that applies f as often to its argument as indicated by the number n. If n is 0, the result is the identity function (which applies f zero times).

function identity(x) {
    return x;

Here is the example of SDF.

function square(x) {
    return x * x;
// result: 390625

Parallel and spread combiners

The next combinator applies two functions f and g separately to the given arguments, and then combines the results using another function h, as shown in the following diagram (Figure 2.2 of SDF).

The implementation is straightforward.

function parallel_combine(h, f, g) {
    return (...args) =>
             h(f(...args), g(...args));

The following example is also from SDF.

parallel_combine((x, y) => [x, y],
                 (x, y, z) => ["foo", x, y, z],
                 (u, v, w) => ["bar", u, v, w])
("a", "b", "c");
// result: [["foo", "a", "b", "c"], ["bar", "a", "b", "c"]]

The variant spread_combine distributes the given arguments to f and g, as depicted in the following diagram (Figure 2.3 of SDF).

The implementation uses the length attribute of functions to access their arity.

function spread_combine(h, f, g) {
    const f_arity = f.length;
    return (...args) => 
             h(f(...array_take(args, f_arity)),
               g(...array_drop(args, f_arity)));

The following example is from SDF.

spread_combine((x, y) => [x, y],
               (x, y) => ["foo", x, y],
               (u, v, w) => ["bar", u, v, w])
("a", "b", "c", "d", "e");
// result: [["foo", "a", "b"], ["bar", "c", "d", "e"]]

The function array_take returns an array that contains the first n components of the given array, and the function array_drop returns an array in which the first n components of the given array are missing.

function array_take(a, n) {
    const a_copy = [...a];
    a_copy.splice(n, a.length - n);
    return a_copy;
array_take([1,2,3,4], 2);
// result: [1, 2]

function array_drop(a, n) {
    const a_copy = [...a];
    a_copy.splice(0, n);
    return a_copy;
array_drop([1,2,3,4], 1);
// result: [2, 3, 4]

Note that both functions take care not to change the original array a, by applying the destructive JavaScript array method splice to a copy of the given array. This non-destructive behavior is important for spread_combine to work as intended.

Discarding and currying an argument

The next combinator returns a function that applies a given function f to all given arguments except the argument at a given position, as depicted in the following diagram (Figure 2.5 of SDF).

The implementation uses a non-destructive array_remove function.

function discard_argument(i) {
    return f => (...args) => f(...array_remove(args, i));

The following example is from SDF.

((x, y, z) => ["foo", x, y, z])
("a", "b", "c", "d");
// result: ["foo", "a", "b", "d"]

The array_remove function is another example for the versatile splice method supported by JavaScript arrays.

function array_remove(a, n) {
    const a_copy = [...a];
    a_copy.splice(n, 1);
    return a_copy;
array_remove([1,2,3,4], 1);
// result: [1, 3, 4]

The following version of the technique of currying supplies all given arguments except one to the given function f. The missing argument is then passed separately to the result function, as depicted in the following diagram (Figure 2.6 of SDF).

The implementation uses a non-destructive array_insert method.

function curry_argument(i) {
    return (...args) => 
             f =>
               x => 
                 f(...array_insert(args, i, x));

As usual, the following example is taken from SDF:

("a", "b", "c")
((x, y, z, w) => ["foo", x, y, z, w])
// result: ["foo", "a", "b", "d", "c"]

The array_insert function provides yet another example for the splice method.

function array_insert(a, index, value) {
    const a_copy = [...a];
    a_copy.splice(index, 0, value);
    return a_copy;
array_insert([1,2,3,4], 2, 44);
// result: [1, 2, 44, 3, 4]

The final combinator of this post allows the programmer to rearrange the arguments to be passed to a given function, following a specified permutation, as depicted in the following diagram (Figure 2.7 in SDF).

The implementation uses a make_permutation function that returns the actual permute function, which performs the argument permutation according to the given specification.

function permute_arguments(...permspec) {
    const permute = make_permutation(permspec);
    return f => 
             (...args) => f(...permute(args));

As usual, the following example is taken from SDF:

(1, 2, 0, 3)
((x, y, z, w) => ["foo", x, y, z, w])
("a", "b", "c", "d");
// result: ["foo", "b", "c", "a", "d"]

The make_permutation function is straightforward.

function make_permutation(permspec) {
    return a => {
        const result = [];
        const a_len = permspec.length;
        for (let i = 0; i < a_len; i = i + 1) {
            result[i] = a[permspec[i]];
        return result;
(["a", "b", "c", "d"]);
// result: ["b", "c", "a", "d"]

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