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Biological Teleology: The Need for History

Part of the History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences book series (HPTL,volume 1)

Abstract

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.

Keywords

  • Natural Selection
  • Conceptual Change
  • Seventeenth Century
  • Cyclic Electron Flow
  • Natural Theology

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Notes

  1. 1.

    We are thus endorsing the explication of teleological explanation defended by Larry Wright (in Wright 1976). Wright argues that teleological explanations of both goal directed behavior and functions have the same logical form, which he terms ‘consequence etiology’. He argues that teleological explanations are a form of causal explanation, and that it is a mistake to explicate functions by appealing to past selection. In all these respects his view is in stark contrast to that of Millikan’s defense of “proper functions” (1984), as Millikan was well aware, and with Neander (1991). For a detailed critique of Millikan’s and Neander’s approach, see Lennox (2010).

  2. 2.

    Based on the iconic study of balanced mate and predator selection in the wild of John Endler carried out over many years on populations of Caribbean guppies. Cf. Endler (1983, 1989). Compare the following summary comments from Grant and Grant (1989): “Is it a matter of chance who survives to breed and who does not, who reproduces once and who reproduces many times? Or do some birds succeed because they are better equipped than others to exploit the environment and avoid its hazards?”

  3. 3.

    Interestingly, Darwin was both praised and blamed by his contemporaries both for promoting and for eliminating teleology (Beatty 1990).

  4. 4.

    It should be noted that teleological explanations are not restricted to biology, but may be given for chemical phenomena as students may think that the behavior of a system is driven by intrinsic purposes (Talanquer 2007). High school students may consider that atoms react in order to form molecules because they need to achieve a full outer shell as a sufficient explanation for chemical reactions (Taber and Watts 1996). Similarly, in the case of physics high school students may believe they can predict which of the objects would be hotter than the others by thinking on the basis of their use, and not based on the properties of their structure (Harrison et al. 1999).

  5. 5.

    The Timaeus is the best known and historically most important statement by Plato of the view that the natural world is the product of an intelligent agent acting to achieve what is best, but it is actually quite pervasive in the middle and later dialogues. Compare: Republic VII 530a6; X 596c4; Laws X 889–906; Philebus 26e5; Sophist 262b5–c4.

  6. 6.

    For a detailed account of Plato’s teleology, see Lennox (1985), Johansen (2004); note 33 of Lennox (1985) provides a complete list of the passages that offer teleological explanations (see also Lennox 2001).

  7. 7.

    Compare: “Reason overruled Necessity by persuading her to guide the greatest part of things that become towards the best […] If, then, we are really to tell how it came into being on this principle, we must bring in also the wandering cause—in what manner its nature is to cause motion.” (47e5ff; Johansen trans.).

  8. 8.

    Three different interpretations of Aristotle’s natural teleology can be found in the contributions of John Cooper, David Balme and Allan Gotthelf to Gotthelf and Lennox 1987.

  9. 9.

    The other two principles are that there are three axes of directionality (up/down, front/back, left/right) and that all locomotion depends on push/pull mechanics. (704b18–705a2)

  10. 10.

    The details of Aristotle’s account of the locomotion of snakes is not important for our purposes, but we will mention that he does not think they violate the four contact point rule, since they move by bending in two places in an S configuration and move by alternately moving one side of one bend and the opposite side of the other.

  11. 11.

    A referee made the surprising assertion that “the cited primary texts seem to contain Aristotle’s musings on rationality constraints on optimal design by an anthropomorphized ‘Nature’ to which full intentionality and agency as a designer seem to be attributed.” This is astounding. It will be noticed that Aristotle never mentions rationality, design, intentionality–nor does he capitalize nature. The reference of course is to the formal nature (i.e. its living capacities) of the animal (see Lennox 1997). This is simply a confession by the referee that he cannot imagine someone holding the views that living things have goal directed natures that act for ends unless he also believes that this nature is a rational designing agent. A pithy statement of Aristotle’s view, from his Physics II. 8 is: “Since the nature of a thing is twofold, on the one hand as its matter and on the other as its form, and since this latter is a goal, and the materials are for the sake of this, this formal nature would be the cause in the sense of that for the sake of which.” (199a30–32). Material features of living things are present for the sake of their form. Formal natures in that sense ground teleological explanations for the parts of animals, i.e. their material natures.

  12. 12.

    It can quite fairly be complained that we are leaving the great Greek physician Galen of Pergamum, out of the discussion. And while there are subtle differences in his defense of teleology compared with either Plato or Aristotle, a case can be made that those differences are a result of him attempting to synthesize their approaches to teleology (Hankinson 2008).

  13. 13.

    The first edition was published in London in 1691. This work is often considered the founding document of the tradition that comes to be labeled natural theology, though it is heavily dependent in both style and argument on Boyle’s Disquisition on the Final Causes of Natural Things (London 1688), to which Ray here refers.

  14. 14.

    Indeed, the entire first section of Boyle’s Disquisition is devoted to criticizing the position of Cartesians and Epicureans on teleology.

  15. 15.

    Disquisition (Complete Works V, p. 397–98).

  16. 16.

    This is a reference to the second such clock, completed in 1574, which was replaced by a third in the 19th century. Similarly: “The Situations of the Coelestial Bodies, do not afford by far so clear and cogent Arguments, of the Wisdom and Design of the Author of the World as do the bodies of animals and Plants, […] the Eye of the Fly is (at least as far as appears to us) a more curious piece of Workmanship, than the Body of the Sun.” Disquisition, p. 404. For a full discussion of Boyle’s preference for evidence drawn from living nature, see Lennox (1983).

  17. 17.

    The material in angle brackets was added for a later edition.

  18. 18.

    http://frank.mtsu.edu/~rbombard/RB/Spinoza/ethica1.html#Appendix

  19. 19.

    Quoted from: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Discourse on Metaphysics, Correspondence with Arnauld, Monadology, La Salle: Open Court, 1902 (originally published in 1714).

  20. 20.

    For a good discussion of this aspect of Leibniz’s thoughts on teleology, see McDonough (2009).

  21. 21.

    For example, Cuvier described humans as “the last and most perfect work of the Creator” (see Reiss 2009, p. 93).

  22. 22.

    Rudwick (1997) translates “conditions d’existence” as conditions of existence whereas Reiss (2009) suggests that conditions for existence is more appropriate. The reason for this is that it gives the term less ambiguity as it can have two distinct meanings: “The first of these meanings, and that of Cuvier, is that of the necessary conditions for the existence of an organism. These conditions are a characteristic of the organism. For an animal obtaining enough food is a condition of existence in this sense, where ‘enough’ is obviously relative to the particular organism in question. The second possible meaning is that of the environmental conditions, or circumstances, in which an organism exists. The types of other organisms present in the environment of an animal are conditions of existence in this sense. The reason I have preferred to translate the phrase as ‘conditions for existence’ is that this latter meaning, entirely different from Cuvier’s (Russell 1916, p. 34), is thereby excluded.” (Reiss 2005, p. 261; Reiss 2009, pp. 17–19).

  23. 23.

    “Nature does nothing in vain” is the usual translation. It is, as we have seen, a phrase that originates, as far as we know, with Aristotle.

  24. 24.

    Two distinct definitions of adaptation exist in the literature: a historical one and an ahistorical one. For details and discussion about the teaching of adaptation see Kampourakis (2013).

  25. 25.

    We find similar language already in his 1862 review of Darwin’s On Contrivances: Gray (1862, pp. 428–429), where he applauds Darwin for having “brought back teleological considerations into botany”.

  26. 26.

    In his reply to this note, Gray reminds Darwin that he had been stressing Darwin’s teleology from the publication of the Origin onward. We have noted the Darwin online number of this letter—the published correspondence currently only goes up to 1868.

  27. 27.

    Compare, from a couple of months later: “…seeing what Fanciers have done by selecting individual differences in the nasal bones of Pigeons, I must think that it is illogical to suppose that the variations, which natural selection preserves for the good of any being, have been designed.” (Correspondence vol. 9 (1994), 267: 3256).

  28. 28.

    Works vol. 29, 1989, p. 123.

  29. 29.

    The 1862 edition was titled “On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilized by insects, and the good effects of intercrossing”. It was shortened to The Various Contrivances by which Orchids are Fertilized by Insects in the second edition of 1877.

  30. 30.

    There are a number of differences in the 1877 edition that tend to put more stress on the number of variations. This would support a view suggested by John Beatty in correspondence, that in 1862 Darwin is inclined to think that, at least in nature, variation is more limited and restricted than he does later.

  31. 31.

    The architect metaphor was a metaphor used by Darwin to explain the origin of chance variation (see Beatty 2010).

  32. 32.

    Darwin had actually introduced the metaphor earlier, in volume I, p. 395.

  33. 33.

    Lennox (1993); cf. Ghiselin (1994), Lennox (1994), and Gotthelf (1999) for further discussion of the issues at stake.

  34. 34.

    The same referee who wanted to find rationality, intentionality and design in Aristotelian natures also claimed he couldn’t find, in any of the evidence presented here, Darwin endorsing teleology! If the above evidence isn’t sufficient, there is much more in Lennox (1993), Beatty (1990, 2006), and Lennox (2010); but in our view, the above evidence is quite sufficient.

  35. 35.

    Organisms exhibit some goal-directedness that has nothing to do with design. This is due to the fact that organisms are self-organized, goal-directed systems, in which the goal in this case is a stable state which organisms can achieve thanks to their homeostatic properties (Walsh 2008)

  36. 36.

    A referee of this chapter raised a concern about where in this table domesticated organisms or genetically modified ones would belong, suggesting that they should be considered as artifacts because they are intentionally modified by humans for some purpose. Human intervention in the case of artificial selection of domesticated animals differs enormously from genetic modification in the laboratory (resulting from example in the production of transgenic organisms). Humans may also use rocks as they are to create a path in a river or modify them extensively to produce objects of art. However, most natural entities (both organisms and non-living natural objects) are not modified by humans and most importantly come to existence in nature without any human intervention. Therefore, for our purposes here we will consider those cases in which humans modify organisms or non-living natural objects as exceptions.

  37. 37.

    Those that are useful are probably under selection pressure (a penguin’s “wing” is about as much like a fin as a wing can be) and those that are not probably are too (an ostrich’s wings are reduced—it still “flaps” them when it runs, they just are sufficient for lift).

  38. 38.

    It should be noted that many evolutionists, such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, use the language of ‘design’ for organisms, arguing that it is a legitimate metaphorical extension from the artifact domain. The metaphorical use of design for organisms may be legitimate in a discussion among scholars who understand evolution correctly. However, it can be problematic in the case of non-experts who may interpret design literally (intelligent design) and not metaphorically (natural design) due to their intuitions of purpose and design in nature.

  39. 39.

    Artifact production has an evolutionary history as well, with contingencies and unpredictabilities. Why do cars in one part of the world have steering wheels on the left and in other places on the right? Why do they stay that way, even when it would be ideal to have them all the same? However, this is cultural, not biological evolution; design has a place in the evolution of artifacts because they are made for some purpose that is evident even when they have changed significantly. Organisms in contrast are more “plastic” than artifacts, and despite developmental constraints or biases, they may evolve to something very different than the original.

  40. 40.

    Conceptual change related to teleology (i.e. from design-teleology to selection-teleology) can be understood in different ways. One way is to describe it as a change in the concept of adaptation. If children intuitively form a concept of adaptation, it is one that is based on consciousness and design. Thus, conceptual change from design-teleology to selection-teleology is actually the change of the concept of adaptation from a state that is the outcome of conscious design to the state that is the outcome of natural selection. This is why reference to evolutionary history is important in teaching about adaptation (Kampourakis 2013).

  41. 41.

    In previously published research by one of us (KK) the adjective used to describe this type of teleology was “selective”. There, the term selective teleology simply referred to the fact that children may provide teleological explanations selectively for organisms and artifacts but not for non-living natural objects (e.g. Kampourakis and Zogza 2008; Kampourakis et al. 2012a, b). The adjective “selective” as used there had nothing to do with the process of selection. However, given the philosophical focus of this chapter and the extensive discussion of natural selection, we have used the adjective “discriminative” instead. Thus, although not consistent with the terminology used in previously published work, in this chapter we restrict the use of the adjective “selective” to references to natural selection.

  42. 42.

    Populations sharing common descent undergo processes of change in terms of their genetic makeup and developmental trajectories (or as Darwin described in short: “descent with modification”).

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Correspondence to James G. Lennox .

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Lennox, J.G., Kampourakis, K. (2013). Biological Teleology: The Need for History. In: Kampourakis, K. (eds) The Philosophy of Biology. History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences, vol 1. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6537-5_20

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