Robust processes and teleological language

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    See Hull 1974, Ruse 2002 and Lewens 2007 for explicit statements of this assumption. To my knowledge, the only discussion of teleological language in the physical sciences is that of Wicken 1981.

  2. 2.

    See Buller 1999a for a clear statement of the view that the “problem of biological teleology” is the problem of explicating “function”. For numerous accounts of “function”, see Allen et al. 1998, Buller 1999b and Ariew et al. 2002. Recent accounts include those of Mossio et al. 2009 and Nanay 2010. Many authors now favour a pluralist approach regarding such accounts (see Godfrey-Smith 1993; Millikan 2002).

  3. 3.

    Though I focus on the case of alkyl migration in this paper, I do not intend to suggest that chemists only use teleological language in the case of alkyl migrations. Another striking case is that of surface reconstruction, in which the atoms on a damaged crystal surface rearrange in a way that increases its stability. Here are some examples of how chemists and materials scientists describe the process: “Since surface ions have dangling bonds, they rearrange in order to minimize energy and form a structure which is said to be reconstructed” (Cahn 1996, 977); “the ions of the now unstable surface rearrange in order to reach a favorable energy and the surface reconstructs” (Fromme 2001, 25); “the unsaturated covalent bonds around the defect tend to rearrange in order to minimize the number of dangling bonds, hence the total energy” (Libertino and La Magna 2009, 156). Talanquer (2007) has independently carried out a survey of teleological language in chemistry textbooks and has uncovered many more instances.

  4. 4.

    Cybernetic “goal-contribution” accounts of function (e.g., Rosenbleuth et al. 1943; Boorse 1976, 2002) do imply a link between functions and goals, but the goals in question are those of an individual organism, not the evolutionary process by which the organisms in question were produced. Attributing goals to organisms is still controversial, of course, and goal-contribution accounts are at present highly unpopular (see Lewens 2007).

  5. 5.

    The project dovetails with a broader pragmatic approach to scientific explanation along the lines of van Fraassen 1980, though it is not committed to the tenability of van Fraassen’s account. Making sense of the pragmatics of teleological explanation is arguably an even more pressing challenge for philosophers who, unlike van Fraassen, take the pragmatics of explanation to be heavily constrained by objective causal facts (see, e.g., Woodward 2003; Lipton 2004), since, at first glance, teleological explanations appear to be non-causal.

  6. 6.

    Sterelny’s notion of a “robust-process explanation” bears similarities to Jackson and Pettit’s (1990) notion of a “program explanation” and Sober’s (1983, 1984) notion of an “equilibrium explanation”. All three capture the general insight that an explanation may abstract away from fine-grained causal detail when an outcome is robust across variation in initial conditions; I adopt Sterelny’s terminology only because it seems more felicitous in the present context.

  7. 7.

    Protein folding is, admittedly, far from a paradigm biological process—we are arguably still in the terrain of chemistry here. It is best viewed as an interesting transitional case, in which the thermodynamic rationalization for teleological language applies in a borderline biological context. More unambiguously biological cases will be discussed below.

  8. 8.

    Some readers have questioned whether “so as to” counts as a teleological idiom. I take it to be synonymous with “in order to” (a view supported by the Oxford, Collins and Merriam-Webster English Dictionaries). In any case, I have also included examples invoking the “in order to” idiom.

  9. 9.

    I am not suggesting that this represents a necessary condition on the applicability of teleological language to a process—it does, however, make for a closer analogy with the cases previously discussed.

  10. 10.

    Interestingly, neither weak nor strong adaptationism map on to any of the seven types of adaptationism distinguished by Lewens (2009), suggesting that there are at least nine types of adaptationism in contemporary evolutionary biology. I will not attempt an expanded typology here: I focus only on the varieties of adaptationism that seem relevant to the present discussion of teleological language.

  11. 11.

    I thank an anonymous referee for this suggestion.

  12. 12.

    See, e.g., Hawkes et al. 1998 for a hypothesis along these lines.

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Acknowledgements

I thank Tim Lewens, Angela Breitenbach, Alex Broadbent, Kevin Brosnan, Hasok Chang, Andy Gardner, Nick Jardine, Elliott Sober and an anonymous referee for helpful comments. This work was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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Correspondence to Jonathan Birch.

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Birch, J. Robust processes and teleological language. Euro Jnl Phil Sci 2, 299–312 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13194-011-0043-5

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Keywords

  • Teleology
  • Function
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Thermodynamics
  • Adaptationism