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Teleology in nature and culture


In 1859 Charles Darwin published his now famous On the Origin of Species , which provided, a well researched and reasoned naturalistic explanation of species evolution through ‘natural selection’. In introducing natural selection did Darwin enable us to dispense totally with teleological explanations for purpose and design in biology? In this essay I will contend that he did not. He did remove from modern, informed discourse the presence of a ‘designer’. Still leaving the argument for teleology as a useful explanatory concept in the biological sciences. This result produces a conundrum, especially if teleology is granted ontological existence rather than just metaphorical, suggesting that biology is not reducible to chemistry and to physics. While fascinating in itself, that enticing discussion is not in the scope of this essay.

I will be approaching this essay by following Lennox’s argument for the necessity of selection-based teleology and its origin in Darwin’s writings. I will present counter arguments from Dawkins, Nagel and then Davies’s strong argument that teleology as a metaphor is not a necessity, but rather it is a conservative psychological clinging to metaphorical explanation. I will then provide the argument from Bedau that teleological metaphor does have a heuristic role in biological discussions, and as example look at how it can give rise to ‘value’ in biological organisms. Via Aristotle’s final causality, I will be arguing that the extension of this teleological argument, that humans are purposeful animals, holds also for human culture. I will develop the argument that teleology can be a substantive argument for both purpose and value in human cultural evolution. Establishing the conclusion that culture does not transcend nor contrast with nature in a modern sense of evolution by natural selection.

The roots of teleology and Darwin

In general, and for the purposes of this essay, a teleological explanation is one in which some property is said to exist, or some process is said to be taking place for the sake of a certain result, or consequence . Teleological thinking originates from three views, all having their roots in ancient Greece . First, is what Lennox calls the ‘unnatural teleology’ of Plato in the Timaeus and Laws. In this case explanation of natural phenomena is an artefact of a divine, supernatural, intelligent being. Secondly are the ‘natural teleological explanations’ from the Aristotelian view (motions of natural objects are explained by their intrinsic purpose, unless they were not subject to external interference) that were discredited by Galileo and Newton in all the natural sciences bar biology. Final is the anti-teleology view of the Greek atomists.

The story gets more complicated, particularly in the early modern period, after the unnatural ‘intelligent design’ model of Plato is melded into Christianity, and then the medieval commentators have added to Aristotle. Later Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon and Baruch Spinoza all argue against the legitimacy of teleology, but on different and contradictory grounds. In the seventeenth century Robert Boyle and John Ray developed a Christian version of teleology based on the Platonic ‘unnatural teleology’, which came to be known as natural theology. Charles Darwin, along with many naturalists of this era, studied this , in his time at Cambridge University, in the form of the Natural Theology writings of William Paley .

GTY_charles_darwin_jt_141109_16x9_992Lennox argues that Darwin’s explanations in his writings are teleological . In Darwin’s 1868 monograph, The variation of animals and plants under domestication, Lennox quotes Darwin providing teleological explanations, without theological backing, for variation in plants being “accidental but for the promotion of the organisms’ wellbeing.” Lennox argues convincingly that there is a value component to Darwin’s explanations, “those traits which provide a relative advantage […] to the organisms that have them are selectively favoured.”

Teleological explanation in biology today

In agreement with Lennox other authors have proposed that teleology, in one form or another, is indispensable to biology . To understand the complex morphological and behavioural traits of organisms it seems we must say what the traits are for, which is to give a teleological explanation of why organisms have them. Some have argued that this is not necessary. Dawkins for example argues that natural selection provides a statistical explanation for why organisms have the traits they do, obviating any need for teleological explanations. Dawkins argument is is in line with the contention made by Nagel that being controlled by a program, having a function, is not the same as being goal-directed.

Dawkins, however, was more contending the teleological argument from natural theology, as he provides a stark teleological explanation for his main theme, the selfish gene: “I shall argue that the fundamental unit of selection, and therefore of self-interest, is not the species, not the group, nor even, strictly, the individual. It is the gene, the unit of heredity.” Here Dawkins sees the genes as following a program, rather than being metaphorically ‘selfish’, as his hypothesis boldly states.

Dawkins does apply ‘selfish’ continually as a metaphor, furthermore giving them, what could be interpreted as, an Aristotelian final cause – the purpose of genes is to be “selfish replicators”. Other philosophers maintain that this power of purpose should be dismissed as a consequence of our psychology .

Davies argues strongly that the architecture of our minds are such that we see ‘purpose’ and conceptualise certain objects as minded agents . This ability may have had (and may still have) a selective advantage for our ancestors, however it presents us with an abundance of false positives. “We readily see – we cannot help but see – minded agents or telltale effects of minded agents at nearly every turn, even when none is present.” Davies has noted that Darwin did kill design by a deity; “the theory of evolution by natural selection explains the diversity and adaptiveness of living forms better than any form of theology.” Davies however rails against the “conservatism” and “stubborn insistence” that gives rise to the seemingly indispensable persistence of metaphor in the concept of design in modern biology . He instead proposes that we can formulate a concept of biological functions without the teleological metaphor of design .

However it would seem that there is a heuristic value in metaphor use – providing us with things in a manner in which we otherwise might not see.

Bedau argues that “sanitizing” teleology by assimilating it into some “uncontroversial” descriptive form of explanation, as Davies demands above, misses the essential role that teleology does play in biology. Bedau proposes that value plays some role in the analysis of teleology and furthermore this can be usefully distinguished into three grades of evaluative involvement in teleology. Most arguments have focussed on what he terms grade one, the good consequences approach, which has many limitations and counter arguments. He argues that value plays a role in grade two, and in particular grade three, explanations, and in grade three the role is an essential part of the explanation. Grade three explanations, Bedau, argues are defined as a pair of logically linked propositions; linking a means to an end to another proposition which states the goodness of that end. This has great explanatory power for mental agents , such as human behaviours, artefacts (a rock is sometimes used as a paperweight, and a carburettor is designed to mix air and petrol) , and selection processes , such as evolution by natural selection.

Final causality and teleology revisited

Having seen the explanatory usefulness of teleology in modern biology it is worth revisiting Aristotle, albeit briefly, to see whether his ideas can add anything to this post-Darwin debate on teleology. This is particularly relevant to man , as a mental agent, and our self-perception that we are goal-directed individuals.

Aristotle’s telos is not a purpose or plan, nor is it a cosmic telos . Aristotle was primarily interested in individual living things and his ‘final causality’ is the mode of causation characterising human actions. At the same time Aristotle also finds teleological causation at work in nature in living organisms. I will focus on human actions now, not because, as Francis Bacon argued that final causes are of value only in the study of human affairs, not in the study of nature; where they are “barren virgins”, rather acknowledging that Aristotle forms a vast topic beyond the scope of this essay. I do suggest, as does Gotthelf for example, that Aristotle is worth revisiting to illuminate the implications of biological teleology for human life.

A key concept that arises from a study of Aristotle is that living organisms have an inherent telos and good of their own. Millett interprets this as introducing value into the world. Furthermore this imposes a moral obligation of responsibility on moral agents. Accepting and exercising such responsibility, Millett maintains, is a virtue. This argument in my mind provides a natural platform linking teleology of all biological entities to a natural ethics. I don’t claim that this is either new or uncontroversial. Rather I am suggesting goal-directedness in man is, and should be seen as, natural.

Is culture purposeful? Is it natural?

Humans are organisms that have evolved by natural selection, as part of an evolutionary tree that extends back to the beginnings of life on earth. It must be appropriate then to view humans as we view all other living organisms. I can plausibly apply teleological explanations, even if only as a metaphor, for their development, and in addition plausibly argue for goal-directed behaviour by virtue of them being moral agents, as discussed above. Again I leave for other times the discussion on the existence or not of free-will, and the possible impact of desire, emotion and behaviour on this discussion, and work on the pragmatic premise that all humans have free-will to some extent. Humans do possess culture, which other organisms do not. Here I am defining culture as “cultivation of the soul” or the betterment and refinement of individuals, possibly by formal or informal education. Further, in agreement with Premack and Hauser, I contend that culture is more than trivial behaviours that become population characteristics by social learning over generations . Premack and Hauser argue that human culture has a purpose to: “clarify what people value, what they take seriously in their daily lives, what they will fight for and use to exclude or include others in their group.” The question is then whether cultural inheritance, this teleological behaviour, is natural or does culture transcend the natural selection I have been discussing above?

It can be seen how early humans may have developed cultural behaviours, morals in the most primitive sense, that would have provided a group selection advantage in their foraging existence. Boehm proposes these cultural behaviours could be; group suppression of alpha male dominance, facilitating the sharing of foraged food, and a culturally based method for resolving social problems. Boehm then proceeds to detail a plausible, if not necessarily falsifiable, hypothesis that relies on culture development as a key component in group-selection. These steps or components involve natural selection and culture development, with; first biological selection providing the precursor to moral behaviour, then secondly the appearance of egalitarian bands (in the sense that weapon and tool use spread individual utility away from brute force dominance) as a product of intentional cultural invention. These steps would have profoundly affected natural selection through breeding preferences. Finally evolved altruistic tendencies, within the group, would have provided positive reasons for inclusive behaviour, in addition to punitive measures of exclusion that Boehm hypothesises to have developed earlier.

machupicchuI would argue this hypothesis remains valid in the transition from foraging to early agricultural civilisations and to our present modern times. Environmental factors and cultural selection would have driven natural selection, culture becomes an additional part of the environment, where ill-fitting or non-adaptive cultural practices would have led to cultural extinction , as has been hypothesised for early middle-eastern and meso-american cultures.

Evolution by natural selection proceeds from gene inheritance from our parents. Does cultural inheritance transcend nature by learning from non-parents? It has been claimed that overall adaptive benefits of such learning outweigh the overall adaptive cost. Individuals in a population can copy a behaviour, which augments fitness. It has been suggested that prestige bias may be a suitably evolved heuristic that plausibly explains how on average adaptive, rather than maladaptive, behaviours will be copied from individuals who excel in at least one domain.

This relies on the supposition that those individuals will serve as cultural models and in formal civilisations will get themselves into prestigious positions. From these arguments it can be seen that culture neither transcends nor clashes with a modern sense of nature as evolving by natural selection.

This essay was first submitted in March 2015, by the author, as an assessment task for HPSC20002 “A History of Nature” as partial requirements for the award of a Post Graduate Diploma Arts (History and Philosophy of Science) at the University of Melbourne.


Primary Sources

Aristotle, The complete works of Aristotle. Princeton: Princeton University Press (Revised Oxford Translation, One-volume digital edition), 2014.

Darwin, Charles L., “On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or The preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life,” in From so simple a beginning: the four great books of Charles Darwin, edited by Edward O. Wilson, 441-760. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.

Dawkins, Richard. The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Paley, William, Natural Theology: or evidence of the existence and attributes of the deity, collected from the appearances of nature. (edited with an introduction and notes by Matthew D. Eddy and David Knight) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Secondary Sources

Bedau, Mark, “Where’s the good in teleology?” in Nature’s purposes: analyses of function and design in biology, edited by Colin Allen, Marc Bekoff, and George Lauder, 261-291. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998.

Boehm, Christopher, “Interactions of culture and natural selection among Pleistocene hunters” in Evolution and culture, edited by Stephen C. Levinson, and Pierre Jaisson, 79-103. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.

Davies, Paul Sheldon, Subjects of the world: Darwin’s rhetoric and the study of agency in nature. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Dawkins, Richard. The blind watchmaker. Harlow: Longman Scientific & Technical, 1987.

FitzPatrick, William J. Teleology and the norms of nature. New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2000.

Gotthelf, Alan, “Understanding Aristotle’s teleology,” in Final causality in nature and human affairs, edited by Richard F. Hassing, 71-82. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1997.

Lennox, James G., “Darwin and Teleology,” in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Darwin and Evolutionary Thought, edited by Michael Ruse, 152-157. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Levinson, Stephen C., “Introduction: the evolution of a culture in a microcosm” in Evolution and culture, edited by Stephen C. Levinson, and Pierre Jaisson, 1-41. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.

Lewens, Tim, “Cultural Evolution”, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta, : accessed 30/1/2015.

Millett, Stephan. Aristotle’s powers and responsibility for nature. Berne: Peter Lang AG, 2011.

Premack, David and Marc D. Hauser, “Why animals do not have culture” in Evolution and culture, edited by Stephen C. Levinson, and Pierre Jaisson, 275-278. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.


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