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Teleology in the philosophy of biology

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  • Teleology in the philosophy of biology

    From the Wikipedia page on Aristotle´s four causes:

    Contrary to the position described by Francisco J. Ayala, Ernst Mayr states that "adaptedness... is a posteriori result rather than an a priori goal-seeking."[31] Various commentators view the teleological phrases used in modern evolutionary biology as a type of shorthand. For example, S. H. P. Madrell writes that "the proper but cumbersome way of describing change by evolutionary adaptation [may be] substituted by shorter overtly teleological statements" for the sake of saving space, but that this "should not be taken to imply that evolution proceeds by anything other than from mutations arising by chance, with those that impart an advantage being retained by natural selection."[32] However, Lennox states that in evolution as conceived by Darwin, it is true both that evolution is the result of mutations arising by chance and that evolution is teleological in nature.[18]

    Statements that a species does something "in order to" achieve survival are teleological. The validity or invalidity of such statements depends on the species and the intention of the writer as to the meaning of the phrase "in order to". Sometimes it is possible or useful to rewrite such sentences so as to avoid teleology.[33] Some biology courses have incorporated exercises requiring students to rephrase such sentences so that they do not read teleologically. Nevertheless, biologists still frequently write in a way which can be read as implying teleology even if that is not the intention.

    I´m currently learning more about the four causes, primarily their application in special fields. I became convinced that this principle is indeed true, but what I am stumbling about is how to argue for them when it comes to explicit topics. Now, I realize that a denial of teleology, e.g. the denial of it in the way mentioned in the second paragraph would entaitl that the species or the single organism would indeed do nothing with intention and the survival of it would be accidental. I believe this would limit all options to a neo-darwinistic view in which every development would be an accident. What I´m struggling with though is to formulate a positive argument for teleology in biology to adress Mayr´s quote that adaptedness is a posteriori and not a goal. And how can we argue against teleonomy?

  • #2
    Someone can correct me if I'm wrong, but even if the origins of variation is accidental, it doesn't follow that they doesn't have an essential teleological character. After all, even if an adaptation didn't appear because it was positive to the individue's survival, we still call it an adaptation. In the end, natural selection is a "parasitic notion" which is grounded in the nature of biological beings who strive to survive, which is the perfect example of teleological activity.

    Dr. Feser have a section on natural selection in his last book: if anyone read it... :-)


    • #3
      I paid explicit attention to it in my biochemistry class on Friday and it is really incredible how much teleological language is being used when describing processes like the digestion and resynthesis of fat.