What is teleology?
When people utter the familiar phrase “everything happens for a reason,” they don’t mean that every phenomenon is preceded by an underlying cause. Long before Isaac Newton, we knew that balls don’t start rolling by themselves. Instead, what people mean is that things happen so as to fulfill a goal or purpose—that events unfold as part of a grand plan.
This widespread, deep-seated idea, known (since the days of Plato and Aristotle) as teleology, develops at a young age. Spend time with children anywhere around the world and you will appreciate how “natural” this way of thinking is. Turns out teleology is hard to shake in science too, especially the life sciences. Why this is so, and what we can do about it, is the focus of my research.
Evolution proceeds by accidents
The terminology we use in biology—for example, molecules “need to” bind with receptors, hormones are “meant” to travel directly to targets to deliver their messages, and viruses should not be too deadly “in order to” survive—fosters this notion of intentionality. But the problem is rampant and runs deeper than evolutionary shorthand language.
The real trouble is that all of us, including researchers and educators, are brought up with a teleological view of the world, which demands focused dedication and self-awareness to overcome.
The real trouble is that all of us, including researchers and educators, are brought up with a teleological view of the world, which demands focused dedication and self-awareness to overcome. Even biologists who dispassionately understand that evolution is not goal-oriented persist, if subconsciously, in spreading the view that “lower” animals exist solely for the “purpose” of giving rise to “higher” animals.
But frogs and fish are not just older, more diverse, and more abundant than many kinds of animals. They are also complex in ways that humans can only envy, with remarkable abilities of sensation, locomotion, and feeding. More to the point, they seem not to be untroubled by their lot in life. Fish are perfectly happy being fish. We do a disservice when we speak of “higher” life forms. All organisms today are equally distant from the first living creatures.
And we should properly speak of the heart’s function, not its purpose—like other organs, it might have evolved in a different way given that evolution has no goal and doesn’t look ahead. We don’t have five fingers on each hand to oblige our decimal (base ten) mathematics. Some of the first fish that crawled ashore had six- and seven-toed hands, so we could have ended up with an entirely different counting system. It’s just a quirk that the surviving lineage had five toes. Evolution proceeds by such accidents.
Can we escape teleological thinking?
Instead of objectively describing nature with neutral explanations, we subtly (or not so subtly) imbue them with judgments and justifications. We blur the line between what “is” and what “ought” to be.
Still, scientists persist in spreading the teleology viewpoint, whether in taxonomy, physiology, or molecular genetics. We explain that ecosystems, like bodily processes, tend toward equilibrium. The “balance of nature” idea seems sensible. Unfortunately, professional ecologists have rejected this view. Why? Because ideas in science are judged based on evidence, not on how reasonable they seem.
Here lies the real danger of the insidious and nearly inescapable teleological viewpoint. Instead of objectively describing nature with neutral explanations, we subtly (or not so subtly) imbue them with judgments and justifications. We blur the line between what “is” and what “ought” to be.
When our expectations bias our initial impressions of nature, we end up with prejudices masquerading as “nature”. For example, museum dioramas presenting animal families as nuclear units with a large father, smaller mother, and two children (even if reality demonstrates no such family) betray our biases toward what we think “should be” natural.
Teleology’s universality reflects an evolutionary advantage: it helped our ancestors to survive. This is why we see pattern and purpose all around us.
Social Darwinism (“might makes right”) ultimately failed, but the boost it gained from science led to horrendous racist bigotry whose effects still scar the world today. Yet we still readily confuse science with ideology, as in the popular Paleo Diet, which allows people to gobble unlimited meat because that’s what people were “intended” to eat. Alas, this is simple wishful thinking based on dubious science.
The causal storytelling that drives teleological thinking may be hardwired in our brains. It is certainly an inescapable part of human culture. Teleology’s universality reflects an evolutionary advantage: it helped our ancestors to survive. This is why we see pattern and purpose all around us.
But if the next generation of life scientists is to see the world as it really is, and not merely as they wish it to be, they must throw off the shackles of teleology. For this to happen, it is essential for us to be mindful of the deep, dark, and very long shadow of teleology.