Skip to content

Evolution and Teleology

April 25, 2018

It is often assumed that the theory of evolution has no teleology in it. In fact it’s one of the central claims of the defenders of natural selection, over older theories of evolution/creation of life. But, just because something is often claimed, doesn’t make it true. Darwin’s theory did not give a mechanism, and attempts at mechanisms by figures such as Dawkins, though much vaunted, do not have widespread acceptance in the scientific community. They are more just absorbed as fact by the mainstream culture, regardless of the state of the science. It has become a convenient thing to think: there must be a mechanism for evolution, and so we will assume there is one, and wait on scientists to work out the definitive details.

But I don’t think there is one, nor do I think there will ever be one. Evolution relies on implicit teleology in the most central concepts to the theory of natural selection. The term “selection”, is already a teleologically loaded term. It suggests a choice between alternatives with some end in mind. Not a pure blind process of cause and effect. They will contest, just because we are constrained by this terminology, still nature works blindly, and it is our concepts that are limited at understanding this process. Dawkins argued a similar thing regarding his selfish genes concept. The selfishness is not meant to be taken in any common sense meaning of the term.

Though, of course, this raises the question, why use the term at all, for then it surely will only be misleading. In reality, despite their protestations, they are still dependent for understanding this process on human, teleological metaphors. To say nature is acting blindly despite our crude concepts, is to say one set of human concepts is more important than another, it is not to privilege reality in any metaphysical sense over our own created concepts. For “nature itself”, and our understanding of it as just blind cause and effect, is itself a conceptual creation. Now if this is not up to the task for comprehending biological phenomenon and we must rely on teleologically loaded terms. Then we would be better to be honest with ourselves and just admit this.

To address some of the specific difficulties of Dawkin’s selfish genes. There is the problem of the artificial level at which we choose to individuate, and say, this is the selfish level. For instance, do we draw the line of selfishness at the level of indvidual organisms, of tribes, of species? Or do we go in the other direction and draw the line at organ level, cell level, gene level? Dawkins would like to argue for an atomistic account with selfish replicator genes at the base of the pyramid, but these replicators remain mythical entities, as stooped in teleology as ever. And the very idea of applying the term of selfishness on such a scale, raises many problems, for what would it mean?

Not only this, is talk of selfishness even mechanistic when it is a motivational term? For something to be selfish it means pursuing some end favourable to itself over others. Talk of metaphor all you like, but clearly the notion of an end pursued as the motivation remains in place, and so this idea we have brought evolution down to an efficient causation mechanism remains a pipe dream. The notion of ends is still in this framework, and so teleology has not been effectively removed. It has merely been disguised by privileging one type of end as more “natural” than any other, namely selfishness. But once again this “natural” is just another human created concept, not an independent material reality.

And so with no independent definition of this concept all we have is that after the fact we define as selfish whatever in fact the entity happened to do. Whatever in fact we find out worked for the individual. In this scenario natural selection is a posthumous addition of a selection onto a prior event, in the absence of any better explanation. It is in fact, what we always do with past events, namely we try to put them into a coherent narrative or teleological structure. But to claim any causal power here in this account would be question begging of the most obvious and transparent kind.

Why then all this effort made to prop up mechanical causality as applying to biological phenomena? Why not just take the more parsimonious approach and acknowledge the implicit teleology at the basis of reasoning in biological subject matter?

The scientific concern seems to be of an outbreak of some sort of return to a primitive mystical understanding of our surroundings. Imputing motives to everything, from the weather, to inanimate objects, to animals, rather than just to human affairs. Once we cede ground in biology, they imagine, then physics, chemistry, cosmology, astronomy will all be at risk of this fallacious anthropomorphic approach to understanding phenomena.

But their worry is misplaced. For they have imagined a certainty in their approach it doesn’t have, giving it a metaphysical status when really it is merely a methodology. The method of physics is cause and effect, efficient causation. The method of biology includes allowance for implicit teleology in the methodology. Nothing needs to change either. It is not a choice of one or the other as if there can be only one true or real metaphysic. It is a pragmatic decision based on the nature of the subject matter.

Not to say that this makes pragmatism the true metaphysic. How about instead of preempting what reality should be, we just let it be how it presents itself to us? Any model of reality as a whole, of the basic structure or framework of reality, is preempting parts of reality we have yet to experience and also filtering out, or conveniently forgetting other aspects of reality we have already experienced that don’t fit in line with the model. Why blinker ourselves in such a way. Language, concepts, etc, these are tools for understanding, no tool will be right for all of reality though. You don’t use a hammer to cut your bread, and you don’t use a knife to bang a nail.

Once again, though, this is not to suggest pragmatism. Reality is not to be given up on because our tools are so necessary, as pragmatism would suggest. Far from it, we need to remember sometimes to abandon our tools for the sake of staying in touch with reality. This means awareness, intuition. The west tried to throw these notions on the scrapheap. Just because absolute idealism failed, is no reason to reject our intuitions about reality once and for all, and bow down to science. Such would be to go from a fake delusion of grandeur to a fake poseur of humility. Neither serves us well, and we are better off to break free of this trap that groups such as positivism in the west have tried to set for us.

Note: Some might like to argue, random mutations is the mechanism. But this would be wrong because it is only random mutations combined with a selective process that gives us the theory of evolution. Random mutations on their own would have no direction, no pattern, naturally as they are random. It’s this combined with an implicit teleology of a selective process that gives us an order. The real achievement then of Darwinian evolution compared to what came before is to accurately connect these two factors. Despite what popular myths may say regarding it’s achievements. It did not do away with teleology, ends, purpose, etc. It just put them in a place that allowed us to best get to grips with the biological phenomena. Namely as implicit teleology, rather than as explicit teleology. A logical structure, a methodology, rather than a misleading and dubious substantive metaphysic.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: