04
Jan
10

The Problem of Teleology

Rather than simply complain about how deity-directed evolution is refused by science, perhaps the complainers should examine the reasons for this.

Why are teleological explanations shunned in evolutionary biology?

Well, for one thing, absolutely no evidence exists that evolution is directional outside of a specific selective pressure; these pressures are very proximal. Even so, while that can be directional, it is subject to change given new circumstances (new predators, change in diet, restricted food supply, habitat changes, etc.). Teleological explanations, being ultimate and planned, indicate a causality of desire. They can be worded as “in order to” explanations. In other words, teleological explanations ascribe ultimate causation and purpose, whereas evolutionary mechanisms are proximal, without purpose, and environmentally-specific. This is the crux of the issue of teleological thinking being placed into evolutionary biology. It obfuscates what is known with what is believed or hoped for and ascribes the very human notion of planning to evolution, as if to indicate that specific mutations are designed (the hope or desire) rather than chance events (as indicated by numerous examples of mutagenesis research) which then may survive differentially.

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5 Responses to “The Problem of Teleology”


  1. January 6, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    I think that the very interesting thing (and is a credit to the author of the article) is that the post you link to belies the fact that detecting design is far from an obvious thing to do, shooting most of the ID advocates he sympathizes in the foot while doing so. The blogger goes through several of the hypothetical indicators of design and has to bring himself to disagree with them, which is a credit to his/her integrity. But, sadly, only the last one is accepted as possible, which you rebut here by illustrating that evolution does act with some degree of “foresight”. It’s interesting too, because the foresight indicator was the worst of the lot, given that there simply isn’t an awful lot of it observed anyway and the examples given seem to ignore the existence of neutral mutations and how they are the most common. Having a neutral mutation that becomes useful later isn’t necessarily foresight as much as a happy accident that is to be expected according to the predictions that evolution makes, and the attribution of such an event to design is simply superstition. It is superstition placed in a more defensible position that most ID proponents, but it is superstitious attribution nonetheless.

  2. 2 jaredcormier
    January 6, 2010 at 10:41 pm

    I didn’t rebut it so much as expose it. It doesn’t need rebutting when it’s out in the open. It’s when it’s hidden within pseudophilosophical verbiage that it’s often missed. Humans plan while evolution just happens.

  3. 3 ptheinb
    January 7, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    At the risk of bringing another falsehood or metaphor into an already crowded arena, I have used a modification of the old saw, that mutations beg forgiveness from natural selection rather than ask permission.

  4. 4 jaredcormier
    January 7, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    I actually like that on the surface of it. I’ve personally explained it as such:
    Mutation happens. It happens quite frequently. Death reduces variability by removing some of those mutations, some due to increased predation or decreased reproduction of carriers of a certain mutation, others purely by being in the wrong place at the wrong time (volcanoes, tsunamis, meteorite impact). This is evolution on its most basic (single generation) level.


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