Where is the teleology?

Lacking any replies from the organisation itself, the discusson I started on the BioLogos thread I referred to here, now with 79 posts, has lurched through one on “Expanding the Paradigm”  (68 posts) on to Ted Davis’s latest on Robert Boyle (31 posts).

A new contributor is Sy Garte, who although he has contributed articles to the site before (as have I) is similarly unaffiliated. His contribution is to suggest that many will choose not to answer the question of God’s involvement in evolution because the issue isn’t settled definitively, though I can’t see how it ever will be if Christians won’t discuss it… if indeed it can be said not to be settled when one option involves overturning the entire Christian doctrinal tradition. 

Be that as it may, Sy goes on:

My own view is that the first question to ask is whether the evolutionary process could (whether it actually does is for later) include a teleological component.

A slightly different, but similar question is that of direction in evolution. Is the apparent trend toward increasing complexity real, or an artifact as described by Gould, of radiation in all directions from a simple beginning.

If there is a purpose or a direction to evolution, then the question of Whose purpose, and which direction and why, become foremost. If there isn’t either, then we can drop this issue, and assume either a Deistic or Atheistic background to life as we know it (including the existence of creatures who post things on an internet).

Maybe, he says, signs of teleology – such as a definite direction – would support the contention that God is involved in the process.

In my reply there, I suggested that having foreclosed teleological explanations by methodological naturalism, that possibility is not likely to be a runner (I’m reminded of my haematology tutor’s always-ignored dictum, “Of course, we shouldn’t speak teleologically”). An epistemological tool which restricts itself to cause/effect relationships is inevitably simply blind to goal-orientated ones.

I also questioned why the theistic evolution project should be conceived as an attempt to validate theology by science, rather than vice versa, or better still, the pursuit of scientific explanations, by those openly committed to theism, about how, rather than whether God has acted. That would follow the tradition of believing scientists in the past.

Leaving those considerations aside, however, I thought it worth jotting down a few specific issues in which evolutionary theory might very well be said to show a predisposition towards teleology, were the scientific project not currently formulated to exclude it categorically.

The first question is the broadly philosophical. To A/T philosophy, the very fact of directional outcomes, even by inanimate objects, is evidence not only for teleology but even, with some further argumentation, for God. There would be no tendency for stones to fall unless that goal had been built into nature. There would be no tendency for life to respond to the environment by change and survival without a prime mover. That contention of the necessity for final causation has never been disproven, though Enlightenment science has simple forgotten it by insisting that efficient causes can stand alone. It is because they can’t stand alone that teleological language remains so bound up with science.

Related to that, but applicable at the “efficient causes” level, is that any process dependent on randomness must also be directionless in the long term. Chance is not a cause of anything. So regardless of general or specific trajectories in evolution, and regardless of the mechanisms actually involved and the level at which they operate, the arrival and persistence of life from non-life is, itself, a direction, and a mark of teleology.

Paradoxically it’s harder to demonstrate that what everyone, in fact, sees about the progression of forms, whether or not one admits they become more complex or sophisticated, is actually directional. Someone can always claim that a lot of complex bacteria is a better end than a few over-complex animals. But what can’t be denied is that there is no common tendency for sophisticated lifeforms to return whence they came, or else the much-vaunted tree of life would be full of runners trailing back towards the ground. Ratchets are teleological.

Within mainstream biology itself, there is much that supports so-called natural progression (which is, though, quite consistent with God’s direct oversight), as opposed to discontinuities as are usually expected with, say, special creation and obvious teleology. But if our project is to discern teleology, we should not forget that there are a number of seriously anomalous issues which argue the opposite way. In most cases these are subject to Occam’s broom, the tool that sweeps inconvenient evidence under the carpet, usually with the promise that the cleaner will be coming in a few days to sort it out.

Exemplifying that is phylogeny. The general trend of transitions in some groups seems clearly to suggest common descent: fish> amphibians> reptiles> mammals etc. But agreement on morphogenic phylogenies evenat class level is hard to come by. The origin of animal phyla is – to a large extent – the mystery of the Cambrian explosion, where most of them started abruptly without known antecedents. And check out the phylogeny of any group you name – humans, pterosaurs, bats – it’s rare to find taxonomists fully agreed. Why isn’t is obvious in most cases?

Genetics is no better. For every congruent set of genetic trees, there are numerous exclusions of genes that give the wrong results. There are also trees that produce wildly different dating estimates ; and all too frequently genetic and morphological trees are just incompatible. There are, always, possible explanations – but one equally possible one, once teleology is permitted, is that there is not a natural pattern of evolution, but a goal-orientated process that doesn’t so much concern itself with smooth and predictable molecular transitions.

Even more basic examples are the combinatorial problems in both the establishment and evolution of the genetic code and proteins. This is most marked at the origin of life, of course, when evolutionary mechanisms are not available. There seems actually to be little real evidence for the get-out that functional proteins are, actually, very common in search space, as are functional pathways between them.

Neither is it trivial that under neutral theory new genes, and therefore new functional proteins, are developed without the aid of the only directional tool in the box – natural selection. If protein formation is (to quote a recent article) “close to a miracle”, then protein formation out of view of selection is … no less so. If it’s so easy for any parasitic chunk of DNA to turn out new functional proteins, why is it so hard in the lab?

The next point compounds this issue: and that is the prevalence of singleton proteins. As a paper by Branko Kozulić points out, there is a power-law relationship governing the distribution of protein families. Broadly, there are a few almost universal groups – suggesting at least superficially that they are conserved by evolution. There are far more somewhat less similar groups shared across smaller numbers of species – again explicable by evolutionary mechanisms.

But the biggest single category of proteins is the “singleton” – proteins with no detectable affinity with any other proteins, and particularly proteins containing unique folds. If protein families are evidence for common descent, then singletons are counter-evidence, and they comprise the commonest type. Certainly, not that many years ago, it was predicted from evolutionary considerations that singletons would turn out to be excessively rare, but sequence studies have overturned that prediction.

Similar things apply to ORFan genes, genes found in only one species or, sometimes, one higher taxon. If the usual Darwinian mechanisms modifying exising genes step-wise are the whole story, these ought to be rare. If neutral theory is true, they ought to be vanishingly rare. In fact, as in the case of singletons, the more genomes are sequenced the more ORFans are found – at a rate of somewhere between a few hundred and a thousand per species.  In many cases they appear to be amongst the genes controlling the defining characteristics of the species. The fact that they are increasingly recognised as arising in sequences of non-coding DNA not under selection, is, to put it mildly, a puzzler. Why are they not strongly indicative of teleology?

Lastly, there are many new approaches towards evolution by workers suggesting evidence for a whole range of teleological mechanisms – in most cases assuming internal teleology, which ought not to let God more than a little toe in the door, but which are regarded as outliers because of the biologist’s phobia of all things purposeful.

To select a few, from memory, these include J Scott Turner and Denis Noble, both taking a physiological approach that recognises the organism’s active role in its own destiny. They number Steven Talbott’s more holistic and possibly vitalist ideas, yet also seeing the organism as more than a set of reactions. They include Eva Jablonka’s insights into cultural evolution, James Shapiro’s natural genetic engineering and even Michael Denton’s ivestigations of “fine tuning all the way down” in the chemical and physical worlds. More broadly they might include proponents of the “rare earth” hypothesis like Ward and Brownlee, and of course the much more widely popular formulations of cosmological fine tuning.

I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but there are teleological issues crawling all over the understanding of life, if we’re not blinded to them by reducing everything to undirected Darwinian processes… which are only undirected because filtered through materialist spectacles instead of theistic ones. Without specs of one sort or the other, you can’t see them at all.

Yet strangely, BioLogos has up till now had very little to say of the alternative, more teleological, scientists, nor of the possible teleological significance of accepted mechanisms, nor of the philosophy, nor of the theology – except to suggest rewriting it less teleologically and more materialistically, and refusing to discuss the issue with those holding the more orthodox theology stemming from the biblical tradition.

Sorry, Sy, I lack the faith to see that changing in the near future.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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