Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 27, Issue 5, pp 663–684

Upper-directed systems: a new approach to teleology in biology


DOI: 10.1007/s10539-012-9326-2

Cite this article as:
McShea, D.W. Biol Philos (2012) 27: 663. doi:10.1007/s10539-012-9326-2


How shall we understand apparently teleological systems? What explains their persistence (returning to past trajectories following errors) and their plasticity (finding the same trajectory from different starting points)? Here I argue that all seemingly goal-directed systems—e.g., a food-seeking organism, human-made devices like thermostats and torpedoes, biological development, human goal seeking, and the evolutionary process itself—share a common organization. Specifically, they consist of an entity that moves within a larger containing structure, one that directs its behavior in a general way without precisely determining it. If so, then teleology lies within the domain of the theory of compositional hierarchies.


Teleology Goal-directedness Hierarchy Purpose Evolution 

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Biology DepartmentDuke UniversityDurhamUSA

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