Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 27, Issue 5, pp 663–684 | Cite as

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



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 



I thank Robert Brandon and Carl Simpson for invaluable comments/suggestions on an earlier version of the manuscript. Also many thanks to Kriti Sharma, Greg Wray, Dave McCandlish, Dave Raup, and the Duke Philosophy of Biology Discussion Group.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Biology DepartmentDuke UniversityDurhamUSA

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