Teleology and Evolution:
Why Can’t We Have ‘Evolution on Purpose’?
This is a preliminary draft of one chapter of a book-in-progress
tentatively entitled, “Evolution As It Was Meant To Be — And the Living Narratives That Tell Its Story”.
You will find
a fairly lengthy article serving as a kind of extended abstract of major
parts of the book. This material is part of the
Biology Worthy of Life
Project. Copyright 2017-2021
The Nature Institute.
All rights reserved. Original publication: November 6, 2020.
Last revision: November 30, 2020.
To begin this chapter I will briefly consider some of the difficulties
evolutionary theorists are likely to have with the idea that
purposiveness, intention, and agency play a role in evolution. Then I
will assess the nearly universal conviction among biologists that natural
selection explains away the apparent purposiveness in the lives of
Every organism is continually dying in order to live. Breaking-down
activities are prerequisites for building up. Complex molecules are
synthesized, only to be degraded later, with their constituents recycled
or excreted. In multicellular organisms such as vertebrates, many cells
must die so that others may divide, proliferate, and differentiate. Many
cancers reflect a failure to counterbalance proliferation with properly
directed tearing-down processes.
You and I have distinct fingers and toes thanks to massive cell death
during development. The early embryo’s paddle-like hands give way to the
more mature form as cells die and the spaces between our digits are
“hollowed out”. In general, our various organs are sculpted through cell
death as well as cell growth and proliferation. During development the
body produces far more neurons than the adult will possess, and an
estimated ninety-five percent of the cell population of the immature
thymus gland dies off by the time the mature gland is formed
(Rich, Watson and Wyllie 1999).
Despite all this life and death, I doubt whether anyone would be tempted
to describe an embryo’s cells as “red in tooth and claw”. Nor do I think
anyone would appeal to “survival of the fittest” or natural selection as a
fundamental principle governing what goes on during normal development.
The life and death of cells appears to be governed, rather, by the form
of the whole in whose development they are participating.
But this has been a truth hard for biologists to assimilate, since it has
no explanation in the usual causal sense. One way to register the problem
is to ask yourself what you would think if I suggested that organisms in
an evolving population thrive or die off in a manner governed by
the evolutionary outcome toward which they are headed — that the pattern
of thriving and dying off becomes what it is, in some sense,
because of that outcome. It is not a thought any evolutionist is
likely to tolerate.
But perhaps the occasional intrepid researcher will be moved to inquire:
“Why not?” After all, we can also ask about the cells populating our
bodies: do they thrive or die off in a manner governed, in some sense, by
the forthcoming adult form? And here the answer appears to be a
Perhaps, when we have come to accept what we see so clearly in individual
development, we will find ourselves asking the “impossible” question about
evolutionary trajectories: Does natural selection really drive evolution,
or is it rather that the evolving form of a species or population drives
what we think of as natural selection? Are some members of an evolving
species — just as with the cells of an embryo’s hands — bearers of the
future, while other members, no longer being fit for the developing form
of the species, die out?
What makes this idea seem outrageous is the requirement that inheritances,
matings, interactions with predators, and various other factors in a
population should somehow be coordinated and constrained along a coherent
path of directed change. Unthinkable? But the problem remains: Why —
when we see a no less dramatic, life-and-death, future-oriented
coordination and constraint occurring within the populations of cells in
your and my developing bodies — do we not regard our own development as
Few would imagine that our own well-directed development from embryo to
adult is owing to an external guiding power or to a conscious “aiming” or
planning. Nor need we think that the “developmental path” of evolution is
owing to guidance such as an external breeder might supply. Rather, the
idea would be that the evolutionary narrative, like the developmental one,
arises from the agency and developmental powers of cells, organisms, and
communities of organisms, as they express their own character and realize
their potentials in the presence of the prevailing environmental
challenges and opportunities.
So the question is this: do we have any less reason to expect a
coordinating agency at play in a population of organisms pursuing an
evolutionary trajectory than we do to expect a coordinating agency at play
in a population of cells pursuing a developmental trajectory?
Our answer will depend on our willingness to take seriously a plain fact
of our experience — a fact stressed throughout the first half of this
book: agency and intention, wisdom and meaning, are given expression by
organisms in a way that belies our expectations for collected bits of
Are there obvious reasons to reject
agency and teleology in evolution?
Every living activity we actually observe is purposive, or “teleological”,
or, as I will often call it here, “telos-realizing”. It always has
a holistic dimension, and it always represents a further addition to a
We find ourselves watching, not necessarily a conscious planning (which
humans are capable of), but rather the self-expression, or
self-realization, of a living being. Physical events and causes are
coordinated in the interests of a more or less centered
agency that we recognize in cell, organism, colony, population,
species, and perhaps even in ecological contexts.
This coordination, these interests, this agency — they are already
assumed, consciously or otherwise, by all biologists in the case of the
individual organism’s development. They are assumed, that is (as I have
frequently been pointing out), insofar as one is doing biology, and not
merely physics and chemistry.
I tried to suggest in the opening section of this chapter that the agency
and purposiveness so clearly manifest in the development of individual
organisms could just as well manifest itself in evolution. But, to most
biologists, this is bound to seem a mere conjecture, and an impossible one
at that. Let’s listen to a few of the possible misunderstandings that can
so easily disturb our thinking about the role of agency — and, indeed, any
sort of meaning — in evolution.
“How can you jump so casually from the hypothesized agency of a single, developing individual to that of vast, co-evolving populations?”
When we speak, not about physical processes as such, but rather about an
underlying biological agency, intention, and purposiveness, then the
distinction between an individual animal as a collection of molecules,
cells, and tissues, on the one hand, and an entire population as a
collection of organisms, on the other, becomes an open question. The
whole business of telos-directed biological activity, wherever we
have observed it, is to bridge radically different physical processes.
That is, it brings diverse and complex physical phenomena — for example,
in the brain, heart, liver, intestines, and skin of a developing mammal —
into integral unity and harmony, making a larger whole of them. When we
have seen this purposeful coordination and harmonization in one organic
context involving many distinct physical elements, it is only natural to
look for it in other organic contexts.
The fact is, we do not currently understand the nature and origin of the
observed powers of coordination in living organisms, just as we do not
understand the nature and origin of physical law. Nor can we assume that
the inanimate principles are more fundamental than the animate ones. What
we can assume is that the teleological dimension of an organism’s
performance comes into play at the very root of its material being, just
as does the play of physical law. If anything, an inherent power to
orchestrate physically lawful activity in a purposive manner, however
poorly understood, would seem higher or more fundamental than the physical
Given our ignorance of the ultimate nature of things, the most immediate
path forward when the teleological question arises in a particular
context, is simply to observe whether the adjustment of means toward the
fulfillment of needs and interests is actually occurring in that context.
But this much can be said already. Wherever we find
telos-realizing entities bound together in some way, we see one
example after another where the more comprehensive entity or context
manifests in its own turn a teleological character. Whether it is all the
molecules in a cell, or all the cells in an organism, or all the organisms
in a coherent group (say, an insect colony or mammalian social group), we
always find a weaving of lower-level
into the fabric of a larger story.
So we can hardly help asking the teleological question in an evolutionary
context: When a species moves along its own coherent evolutionary
trajectory, is it putting on display its own sort of telos-directed
developmental potentials? And then we must be willing to look with open
and honest eyes.
“You speak of a harmonization of physical elements in tune with meaning and purpose. But how can physical processes be harmonized without relevant causal connections between them? We can see such connections clearly in a developing organism. But huge numbers of different organisms in radically different species, often scattered over a large geographic area, are a different matter.”
Yes, a very different matter. And certainly any purposive coordination of
physical events does require causal connections between them. Those
connections are precisely what must be coordinated. But the members of
evolving populations of organisms have no fewer or less relevant causal
connections than the aggregated cells in an individual. Eating and being
eaten are surely causal! And, of course, not only predator-prey
relations, but also mating choices (including hybrid ones), territorial
movements, learning experiences, lateral gene transfer mediated by
microorganisms and viruses, and many other causal interactions already
figure importantly in conventional evolutionary theory.
Isn’t the entire body of evolutionary theory today concerned with physical
causation? Surely conventional theory is a physical theory and
gives us all the relevant causal interactions we need. The question about
purpose, intention, and meaning is a question about the organization and
coordination of the physically transformative processes already identified
by evolutionary biologists.
Moreover, when considering causal interactions among evolving organisms,
we shouldn’t forget the special role of cognition. We can hardly help
acknowledging the highly intentional causal connections between all those
organisms possessing specialized sense organs. And today we know that
specialized senses exist even at the level of single-celled organisms, who
display a sophisticated agency at both the individual and collective
When speaking of “sensing”, we always refer to something more than “being
impinged upon by external forces”. We refer to a perception of that which
has meaning for the cell or organism, and this is linked to a
meaningful response by the organism. If there were no detectable,
purposive response to a particular feature of the environment, we would
have no reason to believe that perception had
Actually, the reality of a coordinating power weaving through and
governing large, scattered populations of organisms is already put on
display for us before we even think about evolution. It is displayed, for
example, in instinctual behavior such as that of migrating monarch
butterflies in eastern North America. Huge numbers of these gather from
throughout a wide area, including parts of Canada, and travel thousands of
miles over multiple generations to a precise spot in Mexico — all this
along aerial pathways they have never traveled before.
Or consider the sophisticated collective behavior of a wolf pack, an ant
colony, or even the cells — bacterial and otherwise — of a biofilm. The
latter has been termed a “city for microbes”, and the complex,
teleologically rich organization of a city is not an unapt picture of the
life of a biofilm. In all these different sorts of collectives, the power
of end-directed coordination, whatever we take it to be, seems to work
across the relevant communities, and all the way down to the molecules
that actively participate in the performance of the various organisms.
So I come back to my initial line of thought. Suppose, for the sake of
argument, that an animal’s mating choices and its preparation of
inheritances for its offspring are guided, or end-directed, in a manner
leading to coherent evolutionary change. How would this be more
problematic for our physical understanding than all the cellular
inheritances within the many proliferating and radically diverging cell
lineages in a complex, developing organism. These, too, are guided in a
manner leading to coherent developmental change — that is, leading toward
the integral, overall unity of the mature organism.
Yes, the particular principles of coordination in evolution must in some
ways differ from those in individual development, as we will see shortly.
In fact, they will not be the same in any two, distinct contexts. But
whatever the principles are, we will not discover them by looking at the
laws of physics and chemistry. We will begin to grasp them only when we
are able to read each particular context in terms of its own meanings,
self-realizing powers, and directions of movement. We are already pretty
good at this in the case of individual development. There is no reason
not to try looking in an analogous way at evolving populations.
“It sounds as though the myriad forms of your wonderful ‘agency’ can accomplish just about anything. The different agencies of individual organisms can somehow blend together so as to become the telos of a species or larger group, just as the telos of the larger group can fragment into subunits — all in order to vitalize and give identity to everything from the smallest bacterium to the entire biosphere as a single whole. Do you have any idea how all this works?”
I pointed out above that we no more understand the nature and origin of
the observed power of coordination in living organisms than we do the
nature and origin of physical law. But I would add: just as, through
observation, the physicist can learn about the working of ideal
(immaterial) laws and forces, so the biologist can learn about the
working of the teleological activity of living beings. In general,
biologists do not have a particularly difficult time of it. Nor does any
pet owner or observer of nature.
It is true that, in the organism (and in all biology), diverse processes
are coordinated toward a common end. And it is also true that this is
understandable only because a principle of interpenetration is universal
in biology. The general rule is that we always find ourselves looking at
wholes embedded within still larger wholes, and contexts overlapping other
contexts. This is clearly evident when we consider the integrated unity
of a physical body with all its cells, tissues, and organs. It may take
some effort, but we have to learn to think in terms of this embeddedness
of wholes and overlapping of contexts.
(“Context: Dare We Call It Holism?”), we heard how the botanist Agnes
Arber described the relative character of organic wholes:
The biological explanation of a phenomenon is the discovery of its own
intrinsic place in a nexus of relations, extending indefinitely in all
directions. To explain it is to see it simultaneously in its full
individuality (as a whole in itself), and in its subordinate position (as
one element in a larger whole).
(Arber 1985, p. 59)
From flocks, herds, and schools, to bee and ant colonies, to parasitic and
symbiotic pairs, to more or less closely aggregated communities of cells,
to the highly differentiated and elaborately integrated cells of our own
bodies — there are many different contexts of agency. The one thing we
can know directly is that we discover agency and intention wherever we
find participants bound together in more or less centered activities that
unfold along a continuous and well-directed pathway according to their own
The honey bee hive functions, in this sense, as a (relative) whole with
its own agency. We have no difficulty recognizing this agency in the
hive’s pattern of coherently directed activity. The participants in the
hive have no absolute discreteness or wholly independent identity. But
neither do they lose all identity. It is a matter of one identity
participating in a greater one.
If, as Arber suggests, biology presents us with interpenetrating wholes,
then we should also expect to see interpenetrating agencies expressed in
those wholes. The distinctive character of, say, a mammalian genus (or
any other taxonomic group) is not silenced by, but rather informs, the
character of each species within the group.
This sort of interpenetrability is exactly what we find in language — that
is, in different contexts, and even in different words and phrases. We
can put words together in infinitely varying ways. Any two words or ideas
or philosophies, no matter how different, can be brought into meaningful
relation, thereby modifying each other. A word is given its meaning in
part by the character of the larger thought in which it participates, just
as a heart receives its meaning in part from the larger organism in which
it participates. Neither word nor heart thereby suffers a loss of
identity, but rather gains in the richness of its meanings and its
If there is one thing we must expect to discover in the wise and diverse,
agencies of life, it is this thoughtful, profoundly integrative, and
“Isn’t the idea of agency, when applied to organisms in general, a rather disastrous anthropomorphism?”
Anthropomorphism is indeed a supreme danger in biology. Think, for
example, of all the human activity we rather blindly import into the
organism when we analogize it to a machine. (See
Similarly, it would be highly misleading to think of biological agency as
if it were like the directive activity of a sovereign and individual human
To begin with, human agency itself is not as neat and unambiguous as we
may be inclined to suppose. A fully sovereign individual does not exist.
Who among us can say that he is motivated solely by his own will? Who
does not at times yield gladly to internalized and inspiring “voices” —
for example, of teachers and mentors, or religious figures, or uplifting
texts. And who does not also wrestle with lower, less worthy urges? What
young child subjected to extreme abuse does not carry into adulthood the
burden and unfreedom of a psychic complex expressing some of the
disastrous ideational and volitional powers of his abusers? Or again,
which of us is absolutely immune to the collective ecstasy, hysteria, or
rage of a massive crowd “rooting for the home team” or submitting to the
spell of a charismatic leader?
It is true that, when we speak of agency, we speak of a capacities we
ourselves routinely exercise. But at the same time we must admit that our
experience of our own agency is closely bounded on all sides by mystery.
We do not fully understand where our thoughts and actions come from, or
how our intentions move our bodies. It would be a mistake to clothe the
mystery of biological agency in the imagined form of a grandly sovereign,
all-knowing human individual.
And if we cannot be entirely clear about the sources of agency in our own
lives, we can hardly be dogmatic about the nature of the agency — or
diverse agencies — at work in a single bee colony, a particular species of
rodent, or the biosphere as a
In the chapter,
I looked at certain puzzles about agency and purposiveness in biology.
But this much can be added here:
Nothing prevents us from being good observers of living beings, which is
also to be observers of the clear manifestations of biological
agency. In this way we become familiar with the complex and perhaps
many-voiced character — the way of being — of particular organisms. We
learn to know “from the inside” one species as distinct from another. And
we can try our best to bring the same disciplined observation to bear on
ecological settings, communities of organisms, or the entire historical
panorama of evolution.
We do not need to understand the “ultimate nature” of agency in order to
describe its immediate manifestations. This is a truth familiar to us,
for we have no difficulty describing with more or less insight the
character of a friend, even though we do not know the ultimate nature of
the human being.
“But the simple fact is that evolution is not individual development. Don’t you need to reckon with this fact?”
Yes. As I remarked above, the principles of coordination in one context
must differ in one degree or another from those of a different context.
They are what make each context what it is.
One obvious difference between development and evolution is that cycles of
individual development are endlessly and reliably repeated, so that no one
can avoid at least unconsciously recognizing their teleological character.
Time and again, amid all the inconstancies of life and environment, mouse
zygotes develop into adult mice.
Evolution, by contrast, encompasses the totality of life on earth, and
occurs only once. No more than in reading a good novel can we predict,
mid-way through the story, its later outcome, even if that outcome turns
out to be the end toward which everything was
This non-repeatability of evolution makes it all too easy, for those bent
on doing so, to “forget” everything they know about the creative and
end-directed character of all the life processes through which evolution
There are, of course, other distinctions between individual and
evolutionary development. In the latter case we see (in those organisms
reproducing sexually) a continual merging of separate hereditary lineages.
There is also the fact of hybridization across species, genera, and even
families. None of this commonly occurs among the cells of a developing
organism. And some evolutionary features figuring strongly in current
theorizing — symbioses of various sorts, cultural inheritance, and lateral
gene transfer — also serve to remind us that, while communities of
organisms can be vitally important even for individual development, they
become central in evolution.
We have no reason to assume that the play of purposiveness across all the
cells of a complex, developing organism is exactly analogous to its play
among the members of a species or population. Nor need we asume that the
more or less fixed stages through which individual development passes give
us a neat roadmap for the course of evolution.
We do, however, have at least one foundational principle: whether we are
focused on genes or traits, nothing can become a fact of evolution that
was not first a fact of individual development. The very substance of
evolutionary transformation must first of all reveal itself within
The current unwillingness of biologists to reckon with the possibility
that evolution gives us a coherent, telos-realizing
does not appear to be explained by the differences between individual
development and evolution (which are very real), but rather by a refusal
to take seriously the problem of active biological wisdom and agency in
The uncomfortable truth is that biology has yet to come to terms with the
physically puzzling fact of purposive biological activity — which is to
say, all biological activity. To suggest that evolution is
telos-realizing is not to suggest some new kind of problem. It is
merely to say: let’s face up to the reality of teleological development
and behavior that has already long been staring us in the face.
The shortest path to
confusion is circular
But haven’t I been committing an egregious sin of omission? Surely any
reader with a conventional biological training will think so. After all,
doesn’t everyone know that evolution by natural selection “naturalizes”,
or explains away, the agency and purposiveness we observe in organisms?
That is, explains it without appeal to any principles other than purely
Biologists often think of purposiveness, or teleology, under the concept
of function, as when they say that a trait is “for the sake of” this or
that, or an organ exists “in order to” achieve a particular end. And so,
as philosopher David Buller has summarized common usage, “the function of
the heart is to pump blood, the function of the kidneys is to filter
metabolic wastes from the blood, the function of the thymus is to
manufacture lymphocytes, the function of cryptic coloration (as in
chameleons) is to provide protection against predators”.
All this poses difficulties for a science that would honor its materialist
commitments, since the concept of function, as Buller observes, “does not
appear to be wholly explicable in terms of ordinary causation
familiar from the physical sciences”. Whereas kidneys may continually
adjust their activities and their own structure in order to do the
best possible job of filtering metabolic wastes from the blood, no
physicist would say that falling objects adjust their activities and their
own structure in order to reach, as best they can, the center of
the earth. More generally, organisms may strive to live, but physical
objects do not strive to maintain their own existence. Organisms, so it
seems, have intentions of their own, whereas physical objects are simply
moved from without according to universal law.
So the problem for biologists has been to explain, or explain away, their
persistent and seemingly inescapable language of purpose, and to do so in
a respectable, materialistic manner — that is, to explain it without
having to acknowledge that organisms really are purposive
But this problem — so we are told — has been fully solved in recent
Buller, who was writing at the turn of the twenty-first century, was able
to point to a “common core of agreement” representing “as great a
consensus as has been achieved in philosophy” — an agreement that “the
biological concept of function is to be analyzed in terms of the theory of
evolution by natural selection”. More particularly, “there is consensus
that the theory of evolution by natural selection can provide an analysis
of the teleological concept of function strictly in terms of processes
involving only efficient causation” — the kind of “purposeless” causation
physical scientists accept as applicable to the inanimate world
So we no longer need to think of organisms as having genuine intentions,
purposes, or aims of their own — no longer need to struggle with the
problem of teleology, or end-directed activity. Teleology, we must
believe, has been tamed, leaving biologists safe in their world of
To put the most common version of the idea very simply (and not many
working biologists seem worried about the need for a more sophisticated
formulation), organisms are said to possess teleological, or purposive,
features because those features are present by virtue of natural
selection. That is, they were selected for the very reason that they
effectively serve the organism’s crucial ends of survival and
reproduction. And since natural selection is supposed to be a perfectly
natural process — meaning that it involves nothing “mystical” like
real purpose, intention, or thought — we can know that the
functionally effective traits given us by natural selection are
straightforward exemplars of physical lawfulness and nothing else,
whatever they might look like.
If this feels as though it is cheating a bit, then you might want to trust
your intuition — for more than one reason. I will briefly touch the issue
from three different angles.
(1) The problem of the “arrival of the fittest” remains
To say that natural selection preserves traits promoting the survival of
organisms does nothing to explain how the teleological character of those
traits might be compatible with materialist thought. The preservation of
an already existing trait is an entirely different matter from its nature
and origin. Claiming that teleological features or activities already
existed at some time in the past and then were preserved by natural
selection merely pushes the problem of their origin and nature back to an
earlier time, without solving it.
We heard about this in
where prominent figures in evolutionary biology over the past century and
more complained that natural selection — even if it explains the survival
of the fittest — cannot explain the arrival of the fittest. The arrival
of traits is simply assumed, with natural selection then playing a role in
their preservation and their spread throughout a population. Yes,
purposive features conduce to the survival of organisms, and therefore may
be preserved. But how does this bare fact make these features, in
Buller’s words, “explicable in terms of ordinary [physical] causation”?
Given the historical persistence of the complaint by leading biologists
about natural selection and the arrival of the fittest, it is remarkable
that the arguments today about how natural selection explains teleology
generally proceed without so much as an acknowledgment of the problem.
(2) The explanation assumes what it is supposed explain
It is important to realize that purposiveness runs through all
biological activity. It is reflected in the coordinating principles that
account for the integral, interwoven unity of the organism’s life. The
complexity theorist and philosopher of biology, Peter Corning — who
appears to hold a conventional, materialist view of life — was
nevertheless gesturing toward this purposive unity when he wrote that
living systems “must actively seek to survive and reproduce over time, and
this existential problem requires that they must also be goal directed in
an immediate, proximate sense … Every feature of a given organism
can be viewed in terms of its relationship (for better or worse) to this
fundamental, in-built, inescapable problem”
Rather than being just one more discrete trait that might have been neatly
evolved at some particular point in evolution, the telos-realizing
capacity of organisms reflects their fundamental nature. It is what
“living” means. We are always looking at a live performance — a
future-directed performance, improvised in the moment in the light of
present conditions and ongoing needs — not a mere “rolling forward” of
some blind physical mechanism set in motion eons previously.
Here we encounter a staggeringly obvious problem. You will recall from
that natural selection is supposed to occur when three conditions are met:
there is variation among organisms; particular variations are to a
sufficient degree inherited by offspring; and there is a “struggle for
survival” that puts the existing variants to the test. But — and this is
the crucial point — all the endlessly elaborate means for the
production of variation, the assembly and transmission of inheritances,
and the struggle for survival just are the well-regulated,
end-directed activities whose teleological character biologists need to
explain. So the basic conditions enabling natural selection to occur
could hardly be more thoroughly teleological.
In other words, the purposive performance of an organism is a
pre-condition for anything that looks at all alive and capable of being
caught up in evolutionary processes of trait selection. So the common
form of the argument that natural selection explains the apparent
purposiveness of all biological activity appears to assume the very thing
it is supposed to explain. Purposiveness is built into the idea of
natural selection itself, which therefore presents us with the problem
instead of removing it. We are merely arguing in a circle. It would be
truer to say that teleology explains natural selection than that selection
Although this problem regarding the explanation of teleology has been
almost universally ignored among biologists, it has not been entirely
overlooked. Georg Toepfer, a philosopher of biology at the Leibniz Center
for Cultural Research in Berlin, has stated the matter with perfect
With the acceptance of evolutionary theory, one popular strategy for
accommodating teleological reasoning was to explain it by reference to
selection in the past: functions were reconstructed as ‘selected effects’.
But the theory of evolution obviously presupposes the existence of
organisms as organized and regulated, i.e. functional systems. Therefore,
evolutionary theory cannot provide the foundation for
(3) The lure of the machine
Those convinced that natural selection explains teleological traits
(rather than the other way around) do occasionally make at least passing
reference to the problem of the origin of the traits. For example, Buller
writes that “natural selection explains the presence of a trait by
explaining how it was preserved after being randomly generated”.
Organisms, he says, “are built by genes”, and genes undergo random
mutation, whereby new traits
Of course, random activity does not by itself explain anything at all. So
we can be sure that this activity is assumed to take place against a
(perhaps largely unspoken) background that contributes essentially to the
supposed explanation of teleology. A foundational feature of this
background is the assumption that an organism is a kind of machine, or
mechanism, that we can imagine is controlled by a genetic program.
Evolution then “works” by
with at least some part of this physical structure until, over geological
time, entirely new sorts of structure take form. The tinkering works
mainly upon randomly occurring variations — usually, it is said,
genetic variations, or mutations. And, despite the word itself,
tinkering is not admitted to be something the organism does. Nor
does it reflect any sort of wisdom playing through living beings. Rather,
the contriving of complex, sophisticated features is something that
blindly happens to the organism.
But finding anything that blindly happens to the organism is hard to do.
The nonrandomness of mutation.
To demonstrate that last point, we need only consider the unexpected
reality of those genetic mutations upon which natural selection is
supposed to work. The crucial observation was made by Oxford University
biophysicist Norman Cook in 1977: far from being random, these mutations
are actively managed by the organism. “Biological intervention through
enzymes and enzyme systems is the principal mechanism of in vivo
mutation”, he wrote. He went on to point out that if changes in the
genetic material are indeed mediated by other cellular molecules, then the
idea of randomness loses its meaning
Furthermore, as British radiologist B. A. Bridges remarked: even studies
of radiation-induced mutation in bacteria have shown that cellular repair
systems are “necessary for nearly all of the mutagenic effect of
ultra-violet and around ninety percent of that of ionizing radiation”
That is, outcomes depend at least in part on what the organism does with
the influences impinging upon it. You might think that radiation mostly
causes very local alterations in DNA, corresponding to the immediate
location of damage. Yet the great majority of radiation-induced mutations
involve large regions of DNA, often encompassing many thousands of
nucleotide bases, or “letters”, of the genetic sequence
(Elespuru and Sankaranarayanan 2006).
This is greater than the length of many genes. The organism making such
changes is apparently prepared to respond as best it can and in its own
creative way when it engages the potentially harmful, mutagenic effects of
University of Chicago microbiologist, James Shapiro, in his book
Evolution: A View from the 21st Century, presents a wide-ranging
and authoritative case for the organism’s active role in modifying its own
genome — an activity so pervasive and with such profound implications that
he refers to it as “natural genetic engineering”
All this raises fundamental questions about the idea of an evolutionary
process rooted in chance mutations. Where do we ever see random,
undirected change as opposed to an organism’s response to its
external and internal environment?
Activity precedes structure.
The decisive issue goes far beyond responses to mutation. There remains
the larger truth that every organism, in its entire being, is first of all
an activity. Its structures are always results of activity — a truth we
have seen amplified throughout the first half of this book. As American
philosopher Suzanne Langer put it at mid-twentieth century: “Every
discovery makes the living organism look less like a predesigned object
and more like an embodied drama of evolving acts, intricately prepared by
the past, yet all improvising their moves to consummation”
(Langer 1967, p. 378).
When we look at an elaborately choreographed molecular activity such as
the explanatory challenge lies in the fact that, unlike in a silicon chip,
there are no precisely incised channels in the watery medium of the cell’s
plasm. Likewise, there are no finely machined gears, switches, levers,
to forcibly shape the overall, carefully sequenced, and well-aimed
activity of the hundreds of molecules engaged in the extended task of
splicing. The fluid realm of the cell is one where movement and a kind of
freedom reign. There is also a continual exchange and transformation of
substances — which means there is little in the way of rigidly fixed
structure of any sort.
This is why we have had to ask ourselves in that earlier chapter: What
constrains and imposes end-directed order upon all the molecules involved
in RNA splicing, DNA replication and repair, or gene expression? What
keeps these intricate processes — and countless others like them —
“teleologically on track” to perform intricate and extended tasks despite
what would be, in strictly physical terms, an overwhelming invitation to
disorder? Can we possibly imagine that the cell’s living activity is
controlled, step-by-step, by mechanistically enforced instructions issuing
from the genome?
It’s not just that no one even pretends to have discovered genetically
encoded instructions specifying what each of the molecules involved in RNA
splicing should do, moment by moment. Even if there were such
instructions, and even if they were so surpassingly complex and subtle
that they could manage every moment’s need in perhaps trillions of
differently contextualized cells throughout an organism’s unpredictable
lifetime — still, these instructions would have no way of being
continuously conveyed to the virtual infinitude of molecules needing them.
Nevertheless, even if they are not mechanistic, the constraints directing
the organism’s activity are there. They are real. What helps to conceal
this truth from us is our experience with the ubiquitous machines in our
life. We see the solid, visible materials of a grandfather clock, a
washing machine, or a computer, and we can’t help believing that those
materials account for the activity we are watching. Of course, understood
in a limited and proper sense, this is true.
But then we have been all too willing to ignore a more fundamental truth:
the materials of the clock gained their functional order, such as it is,
only by virtue of the creative thought and well-informed technique of the
inventors and builders. In other words — and here is the decisive
difference between a machine and an organism — the ideas governing the
performance of the machine’s materials are imposed from without and are
not, as in an organism, inherent in the materials themselves. This
inherence is the difference that makes the materials of an organism
living. When the materials of a machine are damaged, they do not
naturally — out of their own nature and all the way down to the most
detailed and complex molecular interactions — do their best to heal
themselves in conformity with the larger purposes of the device.
Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, once articulated a
principle he called “the central dogma of molecular
Despite its past influence, it has suffered much wear and tear with time,
and need not concern us here — above all because there is a much more
foundational principle (certainly not to be received as dogma) that we
might offer in its place:
All material structure in an organism derives from, and must be maintained
by, the organism’s activity. The structure, once originated, is put into
the service of this activity — and in this sense becomes a constraining
shaper of activity. But activity always precedes both structure and
Anyone who holds that natural selection is a “force” that tinkers with
machine-like organisms so as to produce teleological capacities needs to
tell us where we glimpse in the organism a truly machine-like object to
begin tinkering with. Can one tinker with a power of activity? We do not
even know what “tinkered with” could mean as an explanation of
teleological activity, since tinkerable structures must first be derived —
and continually maintained — through teleological activity.
We have heard a philosopher telling us that human hearts are “the product
of randomly generated modifications to preexisting structures that were
preserved or maintained by natural selection” (see
How easy it is to forget that there is no actual heart preserved down
through the generations, waiting for the evolutionary Tinkerer to apply a
few modifications now and then that can be accumulated over geological
time. The heart disappears from the universe at every generational
transition. It must then be created anew by a well-directed activity that
is the primal source of change. This activity may be conditioned by
existing physical structures, including chromosomes. But those structures
were themselves the products of prior activity, and their present
contributions can result only from further activity.
In sum: the first thing we require is not some way to explain how
supposedly mechanistic structures, whether chromosomes or hearts, are
progressively modified in an adaptive manner through the selection of
random, heritable variations. Rather, we need a way to understand how all
the heritable molecular structures — for example, in a reproductive cell —
are teleologically formed and elaborated in the first place, and
And once we gain that understanding, how could it possibly be anything
less than decisive for our theorizing about evolution? Actually, we
already know enough to grasp the truth of the matter, since we can clearly
see that what plays through all the organism’s activity is a wisdom —
creative thought — vastly beyond any thought we manage to invest in our
dead machines. It is time to ask whether the development of species shows
the same kind of creative thought we see at work in the development of
individual organisms. Or perhaps to ask whether we can intelligently
imagine such thought not being at work.
The theory of natural selection gives us no argument against the
self-evident purposiveness of organisms. To the contrary, it confirms the
theorist’s largely unacknowledged recognition of this purposiveness. For
we can make sense of natural selection only after we have thoroughly
internalized, from childhood on, a vivid awareness of the lively agency,
whether of cats and dogs, birds and squirrels, worms and fish, or of the
animals in our laboratories. The scientist can take this agency for
granted without having to mention or describe it, since everyone else also
takes it for granted.
And so one speaks ever so casually of individual “development”, or the
“struggle for life”, or the “production of variation”, or “reproduction
and inheritance” — all in order silently to import into theory the full
range of the living powers that made biology a distinct science in the
first place, but that few today are willing to acknowledge explicitly in
their theorizing. In this way, amid contradiction, circular reasoning,
and what I have called the biologist’s
(Chapter 1, “The Keys to This Book’), the materialist preserves his
preferred picture of a meaningless existence. All he needs to do is
appeal to natural selection, that “universal acid”
capable of dissolving all objections to what one wants to believe.
The result is clear. Several decades ago the British biologists Gerry
Webster and Brian Goodwin had already noticed that “the organism as a real
entity, existing in its own right, has virtually no place in contemporary
(Webster and Goodwin 1982).
Goodwin later elaborated the point in his book, How the Leopard Changed
“A striking paradox that has emerged from Darwin’s way of approaching
biological questions is that organisms, which he took to be primary
examples of living nature, have faded away to the point where they no
longer exist as fundamental and irreducible units of life. Organisms have
been replaced by genes and their products as the basic elements of
(Goodwin 1994, p. vii)
The banishing of organisms from evolutionary theory was also an obscuring
of biological purposiveness. It may even be that the banishing happened,
in part, for the sake of this obscuring. Yet who can doubt that,
if we ever do take the purposive organism into account at anything like
face value, the results could be of explosive significance for all of
It is difficult to pinpoint whatever lies behind the extraordinary animus
the biological community as a whole holds, not only toward teleology, but
indeed toward any meaningful dimension of life or the world. But the
animus seems as deeply rooted as it could possibly be. Michael Ruse, who
might be regarded as a dean of contemporary philosophers of biology, once
briefly referred to an article by the highly respected chemist and
philosopher, Michael Polanyi, in this manner:
Polanyi speaks approvingly, almost lovingly, of “an integrative power
… which guides the growth of embryonic fragments to form the
morphological features to which they embryologically belong.”
And what was Ruse’s response?
One suspects, indeed fears, that for all their sweet reasonableness the
Polanyis of this world are cryptovitalists at heart, with the consequent
deep antipathy to seeing organisms as being as essentially
physico-chemical as anything else … Shades of entelechies here!
The real antipathy appears to be on Ruse’s part. One wonders exactly what
violation of observable truth he saw in Polanyi’s reference to “an
integrative power” that “guides” embryological growth. No biologist would
dare deny that embryological development is somehow integrated and
guided toward a mature state. And it is difficult to understand how any
actual integrating and guiding could be less than the expression of an
effective “power”, however we might end up understanding that term. Just
think how much less justification there is for all the conventional
references to the “power”, “force”, and “guidance” of natural selection!
(On that, see
As for Ruse’s shuddering at the term “entelechy” (sometimes rendered as
“soul”), the scholar who is perhaps the foremost interpreter of Aristotle
today translates the Greek entelecheia as
(Sachs 1995, p. 245).
What better characterization of an organism and its distinctiveness
relative to inanimate objects could there possibly be? Every biologist
who uses the conventional term “homeostasis” (a system’s maintenance of
its own stability) or, better, “homeorhesis” (a system’s maintenance of
its characteristic activity) is already saying something similar to
“being-at-work-staying-itself”. It’s the way of being of any organism.
The Aristotelian term is useful for reminding us that an organism is first
of all an activity, and its activity is that of a centered agency
possessing a remarkable coordinating and integrative power in the service
of its own life and interests.
On our part, we will now do our best to read the organism and its activity
back into evolutionary theory. In doing so, we will ignore the strange
taboo against accepting living powers and purposiveness as relevant to the
Where are we now?
Is Teleology Disallowed in the Theory of Evolution?
An animal’s development from zygote to maturity is a classic picture of
telos-realizing activity. Through its agency and purposiveness, an
animal holds its disparate parts in an effective unity, making a single
whole of them. This purposiveness informs the parts “downward” from the
whole and “outward” from the inner intention, and is invisible to strictly
physical analysis of the interaction of one part with another.
Biologists in general have failed to take seriously the reality of the
animal’s agency, and have considered it unthinkable that something
analogous to this agency could play through populations of organisms in
evolution, just as it plays through populations of cells in an organism.
I have tried to suggest that there are no grounds for making a radical
distinction between the two cases.
And then, addressing the idea that natural selection explains (or explains
away) biological purposiveness, I focused on three closely related
• The preservation of purposive (functional) traits — or
any traits at all — by natural selection neither explains their
origin nor shows how they can be understood solely in terms of
• Selection itself is defined in terms of, and thoroughly
depends on, the purposive lives of organisms. This purposiveness must
come to intense expression in order to provide the basic pre-conditions
for natural selection. These conditions are the production of variation;
the assembly and transmission of an inheritance; and the struggle for
survival. Since the entire logic of natural selection is rooted in a play
of purposiveness, it cannot explain that purposiveness.
• Finally, the understanding of organisms in physical /
mechanistic / machine-like terms offers no solid purchase for the
evolutionary tinkering through which teleological traits are supposed to
arise. An organism is first of all a characteristic activity, not a
tinkerable machine, and its drive toward self-realization explains its
developing structure at every level of observation much more than that
structure explains its drive toward self-realization. In particular,
genes have no way to guide the moment-by-moment, purposive activity of
extended molecular processes such as RNA splicing and DNA damage repair.
All this has been to clear away some of the major stumbling blocks
biologists inevitably feel whenever evolution is said to have a purposive,
or teleological, character. There remains the question whether evolution
does in fact show such a character. We will see that — just as
with individual development — the question is answered as soon as it is
asked. In both cases, once the metaphysical biases against the very idea
of teleology are removed, all we need to do is look, and it’s as if our
eyes themselves are enough to give us our answer.
This orchestration of physical processes occurs, as I said, at the root of
their material being, which is very different from the human engineer’s
arrangement of material parts “from the outside”. I make further mention
of this difference in
these two paragraphs.
In a play of meaning (as in a poem, novel, or any worthy line of
thought) we always find a coherent movement toward — toward an end,
or completion, or a greater fullness of the expression of a present
context. So, too, every organism is continually bringing its own
distinctive life story toward fuller realization in accordance with the
meaning of its own context. Every sensing and responding becomes an
integral “utterance” within that same story.
Owen Barfield once wrote a kind of fantasy novel
in which the protagonist had conversations with a higher
being modeled after the “maggid” of Jewish mystical tradition. The
final words of that being — and of the novel — depict an “interwoveness”
of a hierarchy of living and guiding agencies that may perhaps be
curiously, if somewhat remotely, suggestive in the present context:
Twice, answered the gentle but inexorable voice, twice now you have called
me “Master”. But what you shall do shall be taught you not by me, neither
by my masters. You may only receive it direct from the Master of my
masters; who is also their humble servant, as each one of them also is
mine; as you — if your “doing” should be only a writing — will strive to
be your reader’s, and as
As of this writing, the chapter, “Mysteries”, is not yet available.
Actually, the same unpredictability is true of individual development. If
we were watching
a developmental sequence for the first time, we would not be able to
predict its mature outcome based on what we saw half way through. And yet
we would recognize retrospectively that this outcome was the end toward
which everything was tending all along.
Part of the worry about purposive activity has to do with the fact that it
is future-oriented, and therefore seems to involve something like
conscious human planning, which we can hardly attribute to an earthworm.
Nor do we need to. I touch on this issue in the chapter, “Mysteries” (not
available at this writing). The present chapter concerns mainly the
relation between teleology and natural selection.
There is also this from University of Toronto philosopher of biology,
Denis Walsh. Natural selection, he says, occurs
because individuals are capable of mounting adaptive responses to
perturbations. This capacity to adapt allows individuals to survive in
unpredictable environments and to reproduce with startling fidelity,
despite the presence of mutations. It is adaptation which explains the
distinctive features of natural selection in the organic realm and not the
other way round.
Therefore, he adds, “the programme of reductive teleology cannot be
successfully carried out”. Then there is the following succinctly stated
criticism by the independent philosopher, James Barham:
Selection theory does nothing to help us understand what it is about
functions that makes it appropriate to speak of their “advantage”,
“benefit”, “utility”, etc. for their bearers. Natural selection is like a
conveyor belt which transmits a biological trait or function from one
generation to the next … But natural selection cannot explain how
the capacity of biological functions for success or failure arose out of
physics in the first place, for the simple reason that the selection
process has no hand in constituting biological traits as functions.
Given my limited familiarity with the literature, I would not be surprised
if there exist a few similar criticisms along the same line, at least
among philosophers. But my own experience suggests that finding them amid
all the conventional evolutionary thinking requires some serious digging.
Here is a more complete statement from Buller:
Consider how natural selection provides an explanation of why humans, for
example, have hearts. The heart is a complex organ and all complex traits
are the product of accumulated modifications to antecedently existing
structures. These modifications to existing structures occur randomly as
a result of genetic mutation or recombination. When they occur, there is
variation in a population of organisms (if there wasn’t already) with
respect to some trait. If one of the variants of the trait provides its
possessor(s) with an advantage in the competition for survival and
reproduction, then that variant will become better represented in the
population in subsequent generations. When this occurs, that variant of
the trait has increased the relative fitness of its possessor(s) and there
has been “selection for” that variant. That variant can then provide the
basis for further modification. Thus, humans have hearts because hearts
were the product of randomly generated modifications to preexisting
structures that were preserved or maintained by natural selection due to
their providing their possessors with a competitive edge. So natural
selection explains the presence of a trait by explaining how it was
preserved after being randomly generated.
The idea of tinkering — that evolution is a tinkerer rather than an
engineer — traces back to an influential article by the French biologist,
“Tinkering” is now one of the tropes of evolutionary
I am, with more than a touch of irony, echoing a statement by the Harvard
cognitive psychologist and evolutionist, Steven Pinker, where he says:
The stuff of life turned out to be not a quivering, glowing, wondrous gel
but a contraption of tiny jigs, springs, hinges, rods, sheets, magnets,
zippers, and trapdoors, assembled by a data tape whose information is
copied, downloaded, and scanned.
(Pinker 1997, p. 22)
We might hope that by now Pinker has awakened from his culturally induced
trance and has realized that, as far as our current, rapidly expanding
knowledge goes, the “quivering, glowing, wondrous gel” (if we discount the
hyperbolic ridicule intended by the phrase) is actually closer to the
truth than is the picture of all those wonderfully familiar, but terribly
unbiological, machine parts.
Crick first put forward the “dogma” in
and slightly re-formulated it in
It concerns the one-way passage of information from DNA to protein. For
perhaps most biologists the idea has been taken to mean (with some
distortion) that DNA shapes and functionally determines proteins, rather
than the other way around. But the central dogma is much less cited today
than it was in the past, no doubt because its relevance to the actual life
of organisms is so limited.
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Steve Talbott :: Teleology and Evolution: Why Can’t We Have ‘Evolution on Purpose’?