European Journal for Philosophy of Science

, Volume 2, Issue 3, pp 299–312

Robust processes and teleological language

Original paper in Philosophy of Biology

DOI: 10.1007/s13194-011-0043-5

Cite this article as:
Birch, J. Euro Jnl Phil Sci (2012) 2: 299. doi:10.1007/s13194-011-0043-5


I consider some hitherto unexplored examples of teleological language in the sciences. In explicating these examples, I aim to show (a) that such language is not the sole preserve of the biological sciences, and (b) that not all such talk is reducible to the ascription of functions. In chemistry and biochemistry, scientists explaining molecular rearrangements and protein folding talk informally of molecules rearranging “in order to” maximize stability. Evolutionary biologists, meanwhile, often speak of traits evolving “in order to” optimize some fitness-relevant variable. I argue that in all three contexts such locutions are best interpreted as shorthands for more detailed explanations which, were we to spell them out in full, would show that the relevant process would robustly converge towards the same end-point despite variation in initial conditions. This suggests that, in biology, such talk presupposes a substantial form of adaptationism. The upshot is that such shorthands may be more applicable in the physical sciences than the biological.


Teleology Function Biology Chemistry Thermodynamics Adaptationism 

Copyright information

© Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of History and Philosophy of ScienceUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK

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