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Do What Darwin Did

How to Deal with Teleological Misconceptions in the Classroom

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Abstract

We argue that teleological thinking plays a central role in biology and, more specifically, in theory of natural selection, and, therefore, the didactic goal cannot be its unnuanced elimination. In this sense, we will suggest that students’ teleological views can be used as the starting point for the construction of knowledge in this area of biology. To establish possible didactic strategies, we will turn to the way Darwin himself dealt with the teleology of former naturalists: Darwin had to modify several aspects of the previous teleological thinking: He had to reform functional biology. We will develop an alternative approach to teleology problem by conceiving of the contemporary student as a pre-Darwinian teleologist. Working from there, we will sketch two possible approaches for dealing with the students’ teleological thinking. The first approach seeks to modify the students’ intuitive functional biology in order to bring it closer to the modified functional biology developed by Darwin but avoiding the use of notions from evolutionary biology. The second approach involves using theory of natural selection as a guide to reformulate the functional biology of the students.

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Notes

  1. One important clarification on the notion of function is incumbent. The idea that function attributions are independent of and previous to TNS (assumed in our work) is incompatible with some philosophical approaches concerning functions. For instance, it is incompatible with the approach of researchers who regard the claim that a trait has a function as equivalent to a claim about the past fitness of that trait (Garson 2017; Godfrey-Smith 1994; Millikan 1984, 1989; Neander 1991a, 1991b; Wright 1973), or about its present fitness (Bigelow and Pargetter 1987; Canfield 1964; Horan 1989; Walsh 1996). Our work assumes that those approaches that reduce functional biology to evolutionary biology are inadequate on this, but it would exceed our purpose trying to argue for it here. However, it is possible to elucidate the relevance of Darwinian evolutionary biology to functional biology, which has probably inspired the proponents of these etiological approaches. For, if a specific functional attribution to a given trait can be made without knowledge of its evolutionary history, the kind of functions we currently attribute to traits, in general, was strongly modified by the Darwinian revolution. We will return to this later, and it will be a central point of our perspective.

  2. This rejection is based on several reasons, among which are the supposition that teleology inverts the temporal relation between causes and effects (Estany 1993), that is not consistent with the deductive-nomological model of explanation (Hempel 1965), and that it has supernatural connotations (Allen et al. 1998).

  3. As we claimed before, we assume in this work a non-etiological conception of function. There is, however, an intuition behind that approach that is essentially correct, since natural selection plays a heuristic role in determining what kinds of functions the traits of living organisms can perform, as can be noticed in the restructuring of functional biology carried out by Darwin. The error in that approach consists in assuming that determining in particular what specific function a trait of an organism serves involves necessarily an evolutionary study. This simply does not sit well with actual scientific practice, since biologists attribute function to a trait, in almost all cases, without knowledge of its evolutionary history.

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Funding

This work has been funded by the following research projects: PUNQ, 0990/19 (Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, Argentina), UNTREF 32/19 80120190100217TF (Universidad Nacional Tres de Febrero, Argentina), PICT-2014-1741 (ANPCyT, Argentina), PICT-2014-03454 (ANPCyT, Argentina), and UBACyT 20020190201537BA, 20020190200085BA (Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina).

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Ginnobili, S., González Galli, L. & Ariza, Y. Do What Darwin Did. Sci & Educ 31, 597–617 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-020-00186-8

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