The Philosophy of Biology

Volume 1 of the series History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences pp 421-454


Biological Teleology: The Need for History

  • James G. LennoxAffiliated withDepartment of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh Email author 
  • , Kostas KampourakisAffiliated withSecretariat of Educational Research and Development, Geitonas School

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Teleology is a mode of explanation in which something is explained by appealing to a particular result or consequence that it brings about, and it has its roots in the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle defended a natural teleology, free of the Platonic idea that the natural world is the creation of a divine, rational being of some sort, with a plan for his creation. The philosophical debate over teleological explanation in natural science during the Scientific Revolution was primarily between those who, under Platonic influence, defended theistic, creationist teleology and those who, for a wide variety of reasons, opposed the use of any sort of teleology in natural science, while the effective scientific use of Aristotelian teleological explanation was bearing fruit in the disciplines of anatomy, physiology and medicine. This analysis leads to a crucial distinction between two types of teleological explanations: (a) teleological explanations based on design, which suggest that a feature exists for some purpose because it was intentionally designed to fulfill it, and (b) teleological explanations based on a natural process which explains a feature’s presence in a population by appealing to that feature’s beneficial consequences for an organism. In this chapter, we describe a framework that can be implemented in order to help students be able to distinguish between design-teleology and selection-teleology. In doing this, an interesting connection is revealed: two major types of explanations found in conceptual development literature, animism and creationism, are identified as different types of teleology. Implications for science education research are discussed.