Teleological Notions in Biology
Allen (Colin)
Source: Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2003
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Abstract

Teleological terms such as “function” and “design” appear frequently in the biological sciences. Examples of teleological claims include:

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 causation1 (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.
  1. Teleomentalism
  2. Teleonaturalism
  3. Natural Selection Analyses of Function
  4. Function and Design
  5. Adaptation, Exaptation and Co-opted Use
    Bibliography
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Comment:

First published Wed Mar 20, 1996; substantive revision Sun May 18, 2003; see Link.

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