Biology Magazine

Teleological Explanations in Biology

Posted on the 08 June 2011 by Allen_macneill
Teleological Explanations in Biology
Biologists tend to use teleological language in explaining the origin and evolution of living organisms and their characteristics. As John Reiss has pointed out (Reis, J. Not by Design: Retiring Darwin's Watchmaker, University of California Press, 2009), this entails the idea that evolution is necessarily a teleological process. This entails the idea that evolution is not a "natural" process, like gravity or oxidation, and that therefore there is some "non-natural" component (i.e. "magic") in biology that fundamentally distinguishes it from the other natural sciences.
Evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins try to make this distinction when referring to the problem of human free will (see "Let's all stop beating Basil's car"), but unless they are careful about how they talk about evolution (especially natural selection) they revert to the same teleological descriptions and explanations that Reiss so decries. What is the problem, here?
I believe that the underlying problem is the tendency by most evolutionary biologists to think of natural selection as a "force" or "mechanism". As John Endler has pointed out (Endler, J. Natural Selection in the Wild, Princeton University Press, 1986), natural selection is not a "force" or "mechanism", it is an outcome. To be precise, it is the outcome of four separate, but related processes:
Variety: structural and functional differences between individuals in populations,
Heredity : the inheritance of structures and functions from parents to offspring (either genetically or epigenetically),
Fecundity : the ability to reproduce, especially (but not necessarily) at a rate that exceeds replacement, and
Demography : some individuals survive and reproduce more often than others.
As a result of these four processes, the heritable characteristics of some individuals become more common in populations over time.
Notice that the same list of processes can be used to explain non-adaptive evolutionary change (e.g. denetic drift). Also notice that the only source of new phenotypic variations is what I have called the "engines of variation": all of those processes that produce heritable phenotypic changes in phylogenetic lines of organisms in populations. There are at least fifty such processes (you can see a summary list here). While it is the case that "random mutation" is included in this list, there are many other processes in this list that do not involve "mutation" (in the genetic sense) and which also are not "random" (at least insofar as that term is often used).
Is there a real distinction between non-teleological and teleological processes, or are all processes either teleological or not? If all processes (i.e. changes over time) are teleological, as asserted by Aristotle (and some of the commentators), then there is no point in talking about it. However, if some processes are teleological and some are not (as most people, including presumably most of the commentators here, now believe), then the question becomes "how can one distinguish between teleological and non-teleological processes, and what explains the differences between them?"
In his comprehensive analysis of teleology, Andrew Woodfield (Woodfield, A. Teleology, Cambridge University Press, 1976) pointed out that all teleological descriptions can be reformulated to conform to the linguistic formula " x happens in order to/for y outcome." He also asserted that such linguistic formulations describe metaphysically real processes. That is, some processes are genuinely teleological – they involve pre-existing designs or plans that cause processes to tend toward particular outcomes, regardless of perturbations or outside interference – while other processes only seem teleological – they involve laws of nature, such as gravity, that result in particular outcomes, without responding actively to perturbations or outside interference.
This distinction is essential when considering whether "genuine" teleology exists. To be precise, teleological descriptions sound "reasonable" when they are applied to genuinely teleological processes, but sound ridiculous if they are applied to non-teleological processes. For example, does it sound reasonable to say that when you drop a rock, it falls "in order to" reach the ground? By contrast, does it sound reasonable to say that birds have wings "in order to" fly? Is there a difference between the "reasonableness" of the first teleological explanation and the second?
When I pose this question to my students, almost all of them say yes: the first is ridiculous and the second isn't. I then point out that this implies that the origin of the wings of birds therefore seems to be the result of a teleological process. I then point out (reprising Aristotle) that there are at least four ways of explaining the presence of wings:
• "this bird has wings because it is composed of materials that are assembled and operated as wings" (Aristotle's "material" cause);
• "this bird has wings because its parents had wings" (Aristotle's "efficient" cause);
• "this bird has wings because birds have wings" (Aristotle's "formal" cause); and
• "this bird has wings in order to fly" (Aristotle's "final" cause).
Since at least the 17th century (and mostly because of Newton), natural scientists have stopped using formal or final causes to explain natural phenomena...except in biology. This was first pointed out by Colin Pittendrigh (Pittendrigh, C. S. Behavior and Evolution) (ed. by A. Rose and G. G. Simpson), Yale University Press, 1958), who coined the term "teleonomy" to refer to the kind of teleological phenomena observed in biological processes. Francisco Ayala modified and extended Pittendrigh's analysis (Ayala, F. J. 'Teleological Explanations in Evolutionary Biology', Philosophy of Science, vol. 37 pp. 1-15, 1970). Ernst Mayr finally sorted the whole thing out in 1974 in "Teleological and teleonomic: A new analysis" (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. XIV, pp. 91 -117). According to Mayr, the difference between the "behavior" of dropped rocks and genuinely purposeful processes is the presence or operation of a pre-existing information-containing program in the latter. Rocks do not fall because there is an encoded program in nature that makes them fall. They fall because there is a force (i.e. a law of nature) that causes them to fall. However, a bird has wings because there is a program encoded within its genome which, as the result of interactions between the "phenome" of the bird and its environment, causes the construction and operation of wings.
To say that natural selection is teleological would therefore require that there be a pre-existing encoded program somewhere that would cause natural selection to bring about its effects. This is ridiculous for at least two reasons:
• there is no such program as far as we can tell (where would it be encoded?), and
• this would require that natural selection be a process in and of itself, rather than the outcome of the four processes listed above.
As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!

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