Notes on evolution and teleology

-All of Aristotle and St. Thomas’s arguments for nature acting for an end arise from a consideration of what is necessary for nature as mobile or changeable. The theory of evolution takes the mobility or changeability for granted, and so does not consider nature on the field in which Aristotle and St. Thomas’s arguments occur. How can one affirm or deny what they don’t consider? Isn’t the compatibility of teleology (in the consideration of nature as changeable) obviously compatible with evolution?  Neither one considers nature on the precise field that the other considers it on.

-Say that evolution allows you a way to explain that the goods or goals in nature are only apparent. Great. But once you decide that the goods or goals of nature are real and not apparent, then you simply have no interest in one part of the theory of evolution. Just because some theory allows you to explain something as apparent doesn’t require that you see it as such.

-Imagine natural selection as a raffle. A bunch of moths show up to a raffle game, and someone pulls out “coal plant”. Black moths luck out, white moths diminish. Someone pulls out “coal burning plant burned down”. White moths luck out, black moths diminish.

It seems clear that there is no intention for black or white to be camouflage. The moth simply lucked out. But it’s hardly obvious that every feature and function can be explained like “black spots” and “camouflage”. That there should be one accidental relation does not require that all relations be accidental. Is there no difference between black/ camouflage and wing/ flight? What counts as a wing might not be easy to determine in every case, and the wings in natural things are not so determined to one thing that the things which are wings can’t come to serve new functions, but none of this merits simply saying that there is no relevant difference between “moth wing/ camouflage” and “moth wing/ flying tool”.



  1. Joseph A. said,

    June 29, 2009 at 10:48 pm

    I’m probably being pedantic here, but I have to ask – what do you mean about it being clear that there is no intention for black or white to be camouflage? That God did not foresee the coal plant would have that effect, or did not intend nature would produce color to be used in such a way? Or that there is no strict fundamental law of nature that dictates “color is camoflauge, always”? Or something else?

  2. June 30, 2009 at 5:38 am

    It seems clear that, in the case of the peppered moth, white or black wings working as camouflage is a matter of chance (or if it occured in human life, luck). I say “seems” because I’m not entirely sure. I’m not saying that it was a matter of chance because of natural selection: in fact, my question here is whether we can judge that something is a lucky arrangement simply because it arose from natural selection. I don’t see why that would be necessary. Let it be given that both wings and their color arose from selection. The better conclusion, I think, would be to say that selection is not the determining factor of whether some feature is lucky or intended.

    But if wing camouflage is simply a matter of chance, then it is not intended. Luck is the contrary of intention. Now luck and chance always depend on some intention to exist, but the chance outcome is not present in the principle that acts, and so the principle cannot tend towards it. On the level of the divine causality, no outcome can be absent from the principle that acts (the divine mind), and so on the level of providence neither luck nor chance are possible. But some of the things within providence are such that their outcomes are not present in the principles from which they happened to arise, and so chance and luck are both real parts of things in the providential order.

    Natural intentions are a bit more murky, because they are nowhere near as clear as the intentions that are formed by mind and sensation. Hunters chasing deer manifest clear intentions (whether the hunters are men or wolves) as do builders seeking shelter materials (whether men or birds) Hunters can have different kinds of luck in their search for deer: they might find gold or oil or a hostile enemy (there is bad luck too) and animals can have experiences much like this (while looking for deer or sticks, they fall in a trap, or find a new water source). Things get more murky when we talk about purely natural actions, but something like luck (called chance) works here too. It seems to arise from a different principle, however. What is there about moth wings that allows some of them to be more black, others to be more white? On the most basic level, there is some absence of determination in the wing color- and every absence of determination is on the part of matter as opposed to form. Whereas the luck of hunter and gatherers and other such beings is an absence of determination on the part of the agent and his effects, chance (which seems operative in the peppered moth) is more on the part of matter. This is why Aristotle always drew a clear distinction between luck and chance.

  3. Doug said,

    July 5, 2009 at 2:34 am

    The traditional teleological argument, it seems to me, is as defensible as ever. The proponent of the argument is intent upon answering “why?”, and the evolutionist upon answering “how?” I agree with you that there’s no conflict between these two propositions: 1) God designed the universe; and 2) The universe evolves by mechanistic processes. For, the question is then: why do these mechanistic processes act for an end?

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