Teleological Notions in Biology


Authors
Colin Allen
University of Pittsburgh
Abstract
Teleological terms such as "function" and "design" appear frequently in the biological sciences. Examples of teleological claims include: A (biological) function of stotting by antelopes is to communicate to predators that they have been detected. Eagles' wings are (naturally) designed for soaring. Teleological notions were commonly associated with the pre-Darwinian view that the biological realm provides evidence of conscious design by a supernatural creator. Even after creationist viewpoints were rejected by most biologists there remained various grounds for concern about the role of teleology in biology, including whether such terms are: 1. vitalistic (positing some special "life-force"); 2. requiring backwards causation (because future outcomes explain present traits); 3. incompatible with mechanistic explanation (because of 1 and 2); 4. mentalistic (attributing the action of mind where there is none); 5. empirically untestable (for all the above reasons). Opinions divide over whether Darwin's theory of evolution provides a means of eliminating teleology from biology, or whether it provides a naturalistic account of the role of teleological notions in the science. Many contemporary biologists and philosophers of biology believe that teleological notions are a distinctive and ineliminable feature of biological explanations but that it is possible to provide a naturalistic account of their role that avoids the concerns above. Terminological issues sometimes serve to obscure some widely-accepted distinctions.
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