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Biology Worthy of Life
An experiment in revivifying biology

Toward a Thought-Full Teleology

Stephen L. Talbott
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This is the transcript of my talk given on June 29, 2021 at an online conference titled “Evolution ‘On Purpose’: Teleonomy in Living Systems”, sponsored by the Linnean Society of London. A video of the talk, some brief notes about the conference, a link to the full conference program, and a link to all the other talks can be found here.

This web page is part of the Biology Worthy of Life Project. Copyright 2017-2021 The Nature Institute. All rights reserved. Original publication: August 24, 2021. Last revision: August 24, 2021.

Tags: evolution/as mindless process; inwardness (intention, idea, meaning); machine-idea

Hello everyone!

I can hardly tell you what a privilege it is, as a kind of outsider, to find myself addressing this remarkable gathering. Yet I fear I am about to abuse the privilege because I really doubt we can meaningfully talk about our theme of purposiveness in the context of today’s biology. I can only hope that, for a few moments, you will join me in stepping outside that context.

One might have thought that any exploration of purposiveness, or teleology, would require attention to the interior aspects of life. By “interior” I refer, for example, to thought, intention, feeling, and will, together with the field of consciousness upon which we humans are able, in self-awareness, to think, intend, and so on.

There’s one thing we can say about our interior life: it constitutes an evolutionary achievement we know from the inside. Our wide-awake, self-aware experience provides the first inner space within all the kingdoms of life on earth where evolution can rise to consciousness, reveal its true nature, and even submit to our direction. What if it is here, where life gains consciousness, that we find our most intimate and significant connection to the life of organisms in general?

But don’t you have a nagging sense that the language of interiority and purposiveness we instinctively apply to organisms is dangerous if taken too seriously? Most biologists seem to think it unnatural, as if we were somehow being tricked into continually misspeaking. As far as I can tell, the main worry is that such language all too readily suggests psyche, soul, entelechy, or other untouchable ideas.

The root of the problem — which, unfortunately, I can barely allude to in this short talk — is an entrenched Cartesian dualism.

René Descartes’ cleaving stroke through the heart of reality has been almost universally accepted — perhaps most of all in biology. We live with the violence done to the unity and harmony of the world by that stroke, and merely choose: which half of this improbably fractured whole shall we accept and which half reject? And so the “material” that materialists accept is dualistic material, just as the mind, or interiority, they reject is dualistic interiority.

It seems a shame that biologists have hardened their preference for the remnants of Cartesian dualism at a time when physics has long since become open to diverse views about matter and consciousness. In 2005 Richard Conn Henry, a professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, published a piece in the journal Nature titled “The Mental Universe” without causing any evident disturbance (Henry 2005). Likewise, cognitive scientists pursuing consciousness studies engage in wide-open debate encompassing just about every school of thought, including non-materialist schools.

If only biologists could enjoy such freedom of conversation!

In any case, the problem of dualism will not be my primary focus — apart from the fact that nearly everything I say will run up against it. And, as a result, one or two things I say may appear stunningly outrageous.

(1) Natural selection and purposiveness

But you might wonder, “Why make such a big deal of it?” “Doesn’t natural selection explain everything? After all, those organisms most efficient at surviving and reproducing get selected. That’s why they seem to have purposes. Thanks to natural selection, they just can’t help being goal-directed toward surviving and reproducing. And since selection is a natural process, we needn’t worry about real purposiveness, or thoughtfulness, let alone souls or entelechies.”

It’s easy, right? And yet everything we mean by natural selection — namely, the generation of trait variation; the complex processes of inheritance and reproduction; and survival amid the vicissitudes of life — these are already purposive, end-directed activities. So what explains this purposiveness?

After all, the question isn’t “How does an already purposive organism becomes incrementally more so?” We want to understand how purposiveness can first arise, or exist, in a wholly natural world.

Look. Goal-directed performance can hardly be considered as just one more trait selected by evolution. It is a pre-condition for anything that looks at all alive and capable of participating in processes of trait selection. So we want to know how purposiveness is wholly natural before we start thinking of selection. Well, few seem to share these concerns. But it seems obvious that when we do finally reject the appeals to natural selection, as must inevitably happen, we’ll need to begin thinking about purposiveness in entirely new ways.

(2) Machines and purposiveness

But, whatever the case with natural selection, don’t machines show us how organisms can be purposive? No. I am far from the first to point out that machines are designed and organized from without, while organisms are enlivened from within. An abacus, a threshing machine, a cruise missile — all their purposiveness lies in the externally imposed arrangement of parts reflecting our purposes, and none of it is intrinsic to the machine. The machine’s parts show no living tendency, out of their own nature, to grow together in that way. Our ideas are not immanent in its parts.

If you want immanence, then scramble the cells in the limb buds of an amphibian embryo. Then watch the embryo as a whole adapt those cells to the inherently developing form. Scramble parts of a machine, on the other hand, and it breaks down. An organism, unlike a machine, is not physically determined by the preceding moment’s arrangement of parts.

So it requires, I think, some over-zealous philosophizing to convince ourselves that there is an important principle for biology in the mechanistic character of a cruise missile.

The twentieth-century cell biologist, Paul Weiss, gave us what we might call the “fundamental theorem of biology”. In any cell or other biological system, the variance of the entire system is less than the sum of the variances of its part-processes. So the many degrees of freedom of the parts at any level of observation must be causally constrained by the coherence of the larger whole. Weiss wrote:

A cell retains its identity far more conservatively and remains far more similar to itself from moment to moment … than one could ever predict from knowing only about its inventory of molecules, macromolecules, and organelles, which is subject to incessant change, reshuffling, and milling of its population. (Weiss 1973, p. 25)

This situation, Weiss pointed out, is the opposite of a machine, where deviations of the lower-level parts from their predefined roles tend to accumulate and cascade toward catastrophe at higher levels.

If you’re thinking, “Well, a cruise missile is surely goal-directed, and corrects its course using feedback”, then I am afraid you are taking the engineer’s point of view, not the machine’s. Yes, the human-imposed design is purposive, and will be reflected in the machine’s performance, so long as it is working well. But variance in the functioning of the parts, which include the feedback mechanisms, will have a very different effect compared to the dramatic variances a cell and organism can tolerate for example in its gene expression networks. That’s because the missile’s apparent intentions are not immanent in the machine itself.

Or try to picture some 300 molecules in a “spliceosome”. In loose association, they carry out a long sequence of operations to reconstruct an RNA molecule in one of many possible ways — all in accord with current needs of the cell. Where are the coordinating computer instructions, or the gears and levers, directing each of those 300 molecules to its proper place in the watery milieu, and to its proper interaction partners?

It’s an impossible thought. So why do we think it?

By the way, I do understand that the word “mechanism” today often refers merely to “lawful physical interaction”. This habit of expression makes it easier to associate physical lawfulness with machines. But clouds, though physically lawful, are not machines. Nor are rocks and rivers. Nor is cytoplasm.

If only biologists using the word “machine” were required to say what they mean beyond “lawful physical interaction”! The only thing distinguishing a machine from physical objects generally is the human purpose artificially imposed on the arrangement of parts. So anyone who feels the need to draw on the idea of a machine rather than lawful objects unmanipulated by human intelligence, is probably invoking human purposes under the table, even if unwittingly.

But now, with human purposes, we come to the heart of the matter.

(3) Must we steer clear of human consciousness?

It seems that, while we are free to imagine organisms chock full of machines, information processors, and cybernetic devices — all of which import the human interior into the organism — any actual reckoning with this conscious interior is taboo.

The problem of consciousness is vast and far beyond managing in the brief time remaining. Here I offer only a few bald assertions — mere gestures toward ideas I hope may intrigue you. The sum of it is that I see no way for biology to face up to teleology until it comes to terms with the human interior in relation to the living world as a whole.

First Bald Assertion:  The human interior goes “all the way down.”

 When a pianist plays a Beethoven sonata, the infinitely complex movements of her fingers, arms, and whole body must somehow express her intentions. On any particular occasion — say, a funeral or wedding — she may inflect her interpretation so as to yield a slight shift of character and mood. This means she will modify all those complex movements in an almost unthinkably nuanced manner.

The result is an utterly refined physiological realization of her intentions, all the way down to the finest details of gene expression. These must vary, for the sake of the performance, from one cell to the next over trillions of cells.

So tell me: Do we, in this picture, find any break between the pianist’s conscious effort to realize her expressive intentions, and the unconscious expression of those intentions at the molecular level? Is not every cell of her body informed by her thoughts, feelings, and intentions — this despite the fact that no cell thinks, feels, or intends in any way we would want to call “conscious”?

Second Bald Assertion:  The relation between the unconscious and conscious is an intimate one.

 We can think of the unconscious, rather paradoxically, as “consciousness that is not conscious”. That is, the unconscious lies along a large and varied spectrum of consciousness. Unconscious contents can potentially rise to consciousness, just as conscious contents can fall into the unconscious. The boundary is extremely porous. Can anyone who is reasonably self-aware doubt that a good part of the meaning and motivation of his behavior is less than fully conscious?

It’s hard to deny the recognizable character of thought, will, and intention along this entire spectrum, and I see no reason to think this unity disrupted anywhere between our fully conscious intentions and the cellular processes that yield so seamlessly to our higher activity.

And don’t we already have a psychosomatic view of the human being? It’s not only that cancers, heart disease, peptic ulcers, and other ailments correlate to one degree or another with stress, personality type, or psychosocial circumstances. The effort to distinguish purely physical from psychosomatic disorders is widely viewed as obsolete, since it is now difficult to find any physical illness whose onset, course, and treatment (think of the placebo effect) are not influenced by interior factors.

When we consider that an almost unfathomable intelligence is already at work in the zygote — for example, in the very processes through which the future brain will be formed and begin to function — it seems rather rash to regard the conscious intelligence with which we employ our brains as absolutely separate from that earlier, brain-forming intelligence. It’s not clear how we might even speak coherently about the presence of fundamentally disconnected intelligences at play within the unity of an organism.

Third Bald Assertion:  Possessing, and being possessed by, consciousness are very different things.

  An organism can consciously possess its own thinking and intentions, as we do when we are self-aware and directing our own interior processes. Or it can be possessed by those processes, in which case we must speak of the unconscious.

Now, the intelligence by which we are possessed can be of very different sorts. Consider how you drive a car with reasonable alertness while your mind is fixated on that pizza joint you passed an hour ago. Or consider the artistic sensitivity taking possession of the cells in the pianist’s fingers. And then, especially in other organisms, there is the profound and wide-ranging intelligence of instinct.

The bird building a nest is not consciously preparing for its unborn offspring. Yet obviously it is preparing for its unborn offspring, and I do not know how we can avoid accepting both statements. The first step to such acceptance may be to see that the bird is possessed by the wisdom that plays through it. It’s as if its life is sustained by the voices of a larger wisdom, a wisdom borne upon the eloquent currents of wind and sunlight, the ruling powers of day and night, the compelling, because unreflective, meaning of songs, drumbeats, and alarm calls.

The philologist Owen Barfield, a student of the evolution of consciousness, had in mind this distinction between possessing and being possessed by consciousness when he said that we humans had first to be spoken by language before we could become conscious of that language and make it “our own”. Peering back toward the prehistoric age of myth, he wrote:

it was not man who made the myths but the myths, or the archetypal substance they reveal, which made man. We shall have to come, I am sure, to think of the archetypal element in myth in terms of the wind that breathed through the harp-strings of individual brains and nerves and fluids ... (Barfield 1977, p. 75)

I did warn you about outrage! But before you succumb to that reaction, you might want to ask yourself: Where, without the Cartesian influence, would the outrage lie? Is there any reason, in light of all the foregoing, not to recognize in our reflective intelligence an internalization, a conscious possessing, of some part of the intelligence that formed, and continues to inform, our physical bodies?

Then, too, why was it the universal human experience until several centuries ago that we ourselves were microcosms of the larger, psycho-physical cosmos? And that we lived in a world of beings rather than things? What have we missed by dismissing such experience wholesale in favor of the wreckage of Cartesian dualism?

Fourth Bald Assertion:  Every living being is a becoming — a unity in time.

 The bird building a nest clearly has a different relation to time than we do. It lives a well-planned life without planning anything, as if its future is somehow integral to its present. We humans occasionally have a bare hint of this overcoming of separate moments of time. We have it, for example, in the experience of “flow” when an athlete, musician, or speaker “goes unconscious”, as we say, and becomes so intensely present in the moment that he seems to transcend it without conscious effort or planning. Things just happen — and in an unusually effective way.

I believe that many Eastern and other wisdom traditions emphasize “entering into the moment” with such intensity that it becomes a kind of “eternal now”, bringing with it an ability to act out of a larger, trans-temporal unity.

Mysterious as it may seem, this line of thought offers — even if on an altogether lower level of consciousness and selfhood — a way to begin thinking about the nest-building bird’s equally mysterious life. It needn’t plan for its offspring because the temporal unity of its life and way of being is not fragmented into separate moments.

The study of embryology and development shows every organism to be a unity, not only because every part is informed by the coherent reality of the whole spatial organization, but also because every moment is informed by the recognizable character of the whole life cycle. In this regard, the development of an organism displays something of an archetypal nature.

Unfortunately, the Cartesian mind finds it hard to comprehend an archetype as a kind of “muscular organism of thought”, that is, a dynamic, generative idea capable of unfolding in time as the form of material substance. Which is too bad for science, because this meaningful coherence of an idea, or form, materially unfolding in time, looks like nothing less than what we normally take to be a principle of causality.

It’s easy to forget that all scientific understanding takes the form of ideas of one sort or another. Certainly mathematical formulae are ideal. And if they occur in the scientist’s mind as physical laws, it is because they are recognized in the form of inanimate phenomena. As ideal forming principles, they belong to the interiority of the world. But, of course, the thought-aspect of physics, with its universal character, can hardly be the same as that of the organism as a more or less locally centered agent.

What is needed is simply to acknowledge the ideas of form, or organization, declaring themselves, for example, in every embryological sequence and broader life cycle. It is hardly surprising that these ideas are as different from physical laws as organisms are from rocks. The way of being, or archetypal nature, of an organism is no more occult or mystical than the laws of physics, even if organic ideas require, like all ideas, a method of recognition appropriate to their character.

So, back to the bird building a nest … We, for our part, have fallen out of the time-unity of that bird’s life. We must consciously plan things. This enables us to insist on our own way, for good or ill, rather than be carried along by unconscious currents of life. This is the space where we gain our freedom.

And so we assemble the moments of our lives in a pattern of our own choosing, rather as we spatially assemble the parts of a machine according to our conscious purposes. In both cases, our capacities might seem dreadfully artificial compared to the unmechanical life of a bird living each moment in harmony with the governing unity of its life. This artificiality no doubt helps to explain our ability to play the role of Destroyers on earth.

But our current freedom also holds hope, given the possibility that we might — for the first time and in full consciousness — lay hold of the creative powers through which evolution has occurred, while also accepting our own responsibility for the earth’s future. And, having gained our freedom, might we eventually move beyond tinkering with things from without, and beyond planning our future while isolated in the present moment and cut off from the wider intelligence that has nurtured all life on earth?

All this might suggest that our distinctive human consciousness can be seen as the highest achievement of consciousness on earth to date, but also a form of consciousness not yet equal to the unconscious wisdom possessing the simplest one-celled organism. We certainly have room for a further evolution of consciousness! — which, in fact, appears to be the leading edge of evolution today.


I do not believe we can reclaim the living organism without first unapologetically reclaiming ourselves. This means accepting the fact of our own interiority, through which alone we can understand organisms and their evolution. Then we may begin to discover the connection between our highest functioning, the intelligence of the cells in our bodies, and the entire creative drama of life on this planet.

Tags: evolution/as mindless process; inwardness (intention, idea, meaning); machine-idea


Barfield, Owen (1977). “The Harp and the Camera” in The Rediscovery of Meaning, and Other Essays. Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Weiss, Paul (1973). The Science of Life: The Living System — A System for Living. Mount Kisco NY: Futura Publishing.

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Steve Talbott :: Toward a Thought-Full Teleology