Teleology, design and evolution

Teleology is not the same as design, and evolution (or any natural explanation) is more opposed to design than teleology. If fact, it’s not easy to get teleology and evolution to clash – they simply aren’t fighting for the same conceptual space. Teleology is not an account of the genesis of a population, nor does it consist in relation to an ancestor – it starts off as a description of behavior. Lions are obviously pursuing some goal when they chase down antelopes or seek out drinking pools, and there is enough of a likeness between this and a tree absorbing nutrients to see the tree as working for some goal too. Since Aristotle saw the nature of a thing as one source of its behavior, he had a reason to extend teleological action to every nature.

Now if one takes teleology as giving an account of how the features of things arose, then on at least one way of understanding this we can bring teleology and selection into conflict. Peppered moths aren’t black in order to camouflage themselves on sooty trees, and polar bears aren’t white in order to be camouflaged in snow. But this is no reason to hold that white fur isn’t a part of teleological action  now. The bear counts on his fur just as much as his claws. Mutations could confer no benefits if the evolving thing weren’t engaged in the sort of behavior that could benefit – that is, an action for a goal that can be achieved more and less perfectly. In this sense evolution is posterior to teleological existence and takes it for granted.

8 Comments

  1. MikeFlynn said,

    October 12, 2011 at 9:35 am

    As I understand it, the polar bear hunts in winter by lurking around seal blow holes and then whacking seals upside the head when they come up for air. IOW, the seal never sees the polar bear before the moment of truth and the bear could likely be neon orange for all the difference it would make. During the summer, when the polar bear hunts on bare ground, the white does not help it blend into the rocks and lichen. So it’s not at all clear that the white fur actually is camouflage at all.

    But I believe you have the right of it when you point to the purposes (whether conscious or not) of the organism as the source of natural telos, and not the accidents of that organism.

    • October 12, 2011 at 11:41 am

      How interesting! I suppose under this account the bear is covering its nose in order to keep it warm or something like that.

      I wonder if white serves as camouflage (against orcas?) for the bear while swimming.

  2. Crude said,

    October 12, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    I have one objection.

    You say, “Teleology is not the same as design, and evolution (or any natural explanation) is more opposed to design than teleology.”

    But I question that. Why is a “natural explanation” opposed to design? It seems to me that any natural process can simply be the design mechanism of a given designer. We ourselves “design” with evolution – albeit primitively, and in limited ways.

    • October 12, 2011 at 7:19 pm

      I was assuming the designer in question in this context is a supernatural one, though Crick (or was it Watson? The DNA guy) did advance the aliens-designed-DNA hypothesis, and it is thrown around in ID circles.

      • Crude said,

        October 12, 2011 at 8:43 pm

        Well, the same question remains. Why couldn’t a supernatural designer “design through” evolution? Particularly if “natural” designers could.

        Maybe this goes too far afield from what you were discussing here, though.

      • October 14, 2011 at 7:33 am

        There is no value or even space to supplement the account of, say, why most peppered moth wings were black during the industrial revolution. “Design” can only enter if one speaks about an agent that is capable of using chance to attain a per se effect (as opposed to a merely probable one), but this sort of agency would not be an explanation in light of things that can be given in natural science. The oddity of the sort of causality required is this: if you won the lottery by my design, or by any sort of design that we find in nature, then the lottery would be rigged. Any account of the “design” of peppered moth wings needs to appeal to the sort of causal power that could determine the winner of the lottery without having to rig it.

  3. Crude said,

    October 14, 2011 at 9:50 am

    “Design” can only enter if one speaks about an agent that is capable of using chance to attain a per se effect (as opposed to a merely probable one), but this sort of agency would not be an explanation in light of things that can be given in natural science.

    I take this to mean that, while evolution could be just another instance of design, ‘design explanations’ would not be scientific. If I’m correct in that interpretation, my reply is simple: That’s fine, because I’m not offering up “design” as a scientific explanation. I’m more than happy to say that science can’t say this or that thing was designed. I’m also more than happy to say that science can’t say this or that thing was not designed.

    It seems like the design question and the science question are in different fields. Maybe this is a case of non-overlapping magisteria that actually holds.

    The oddity of the sort of causality required is this: if you won the lottery by my design, or by any sort of design that we find in nature, then the lottery would be rigged. Any account of the “design” of peppered moth wings needs to appeal to the sort of causal power that could determine the winner of the lottery without having to rig it.

    What’s so odd about a rigged lottery?

    But more than that… why is “rigging”, as you put it, forbidden? I think any reply to that can’t be borne out of the science itself – the resources just aren’t there to decide the question.

  4. Kristor said,

    October 28, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    I have heard that the whiteness of the polar bear’s fur is actually translucence, that allows the maximum amount of solar heat to penetrate to the pelt. It looks white only because of the scattering it imposes on light that is on its way back out from the pelt. So, any camouflage is adventitious.

    Are the teloi designed or random? If they are random, how could they ever attain the degree of harmonization that is needed to constitute a causal order – a world? If the teloi are indeed random, then does it really make sense even to think of them as teloi? Would they not rather, in such a case, be, not teloi, but just, “something that happened for no reason”?

    In other words, if there are such things as teloi, then are they not ipso facto non-adventitious – i.e., designed? Or, alternatively, necessary? Yet it seems a stretch to characterize the contingently existent lion’s search for survival as necessary.


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