Letting teleology into science, or not

fun∙ction: from Latin fungor, (a) I perform, execute, administer, discharge; (b) I complete, finish.

I’ve been reading Jonathan Bartlett’s and Eric Holloway’s largely excellent symposium on Naturalism and its Alternatives, and was reminded that at the heart of the launch of the modern scientific enterprise was the complete exclusion of formal and, especially, of final causes from science. It wasn’t that Francis Bacon didn’t believe that God does all things for his purposes, but that he was persuaded that, as mere men, we cannot fathom the transcendent God’s intentions.

One is reminded of those theistic and atheistic scientists who deny science’s ability to detect design for that very reason – God’s purposes are inscrutable, so design cannot be inferred on principle. Therefore teleology – and that included the Aristotelian form of intrinsic teleology we tend to call “teleonomy” as well as God’s own “external” teleology – was outside the remit of the program of science that Bacon started. Bacon objected to teleonomy partly because it took final purposes away from God and embedded them in nature, but the scientific objection was that nature’s goals might be as opaque and misleading to us as are God’s.

There was some justification for this, given the mediaeval speculations about the purposes of all kinds of things in the world which, apart from being mere just-so stories, diverted people, in Bacon’s view, from more fruitful investigation. Just as we are prone to seeing faces in clouds (or women in fruit, perhaps!), it is all too easy for humans to draw the wrong conclusions about final causes from their effects, through anthropomorphism. If we would have such a purpose for something, we say, then so does God – but of course that ain’t necessarily so.

Whether Bacon’s radical dualism between divine and human thought is theologically justified is actually a moot point if we are, as the Bible says, created in God’s image. But for good or ill it is nevertheless the claimed basis of modern science, which seeks only to understand material efficient causation – the sequence of causes and effects in the world.

However, despite the strict methodological pretensions of modern science the truth is, as I’m not alone in having pointed out frequently, that the science of biology is drenched in teleological thinking, first in the ubiquitous use of the concept of things evolving “in order to do x or y“, but most pervasively in the description of those x‘s and y‘s as “functions”.

Implicit in the word “function”, as its etymology shows, is the performance of some task towards achieving a desired goal. In biology, the implied goal of all functions is the survival and reproduction of the organism, and it’s easy to forget that this is every bit as much an assumption about final causation as was the mediaeval belief that gold is yellow in order to resemble the sun.

That this is indeed the usual understanding of “function” is clearly shown by the bitter arguments about the ENCODE project and its claimed 80%+ of genomic function because of transcription. Critics say that this does not indicate true function (transcription being denied to be a function in its own right). Adaptationists distinguish what is functional on the basis of natural selection (assuming their tools for detecting this are valid) – but though advocates of neutral theory may believe that drift too can lead to function, they do not seem to claim that all the end-results of drift are function. “Function” means “role”, and “role” means teleology, whoever is discussing it.

So to attribute the driving force of evolution to the imperative to reproduce, or to function for survival, is poorly concealed teleology. Pare away that teleology, and it’s not at all clear why there should ever be any fittest to survive, let alone any explanation for the absolutely clear evidence that the physiology of all organisms is geared towards such survival and reproduction.

But once one concedes that one can’t do without teleology in biology, that is, a teleology that accounts for biological function, then one actually lays oneself open to the criticism by which Bacon outlawed teleology from science in the first place. In biology, and especially in evolutionary biology, all the evidence is interpreted in terms of function aimed at survival. Even “slightly deleterious mutations” in neutral theory gain their meaning from their not damaging function enough to hinder survival – and when they are deleterious enough to do so, it is called “purifying selection”, which is just another way of labelling the non-survival of the non-functional. They did not “perform, execute, administer, discharge,  complete or finish” their final purpose of enabling survival.

But if one cannot confidently attribute the final causes of the Creator God in nature, by what rule can one confidently attribute the final causes within nature? On what authority, other than habit, do we limit that final causation to “functioning towards survival”? It only appears to be self-evident because Darwin adopted the theory of the “struggle for survival” from Malthus. But survival of the fittest wasn’t the only principle of human purpose even in Malthus, so why should it be the only principle of final causation in biology?

Natural scientists tend to be rightly skeptical of the Postmodernists’ efforts to define all human relationships in terms of power. Yet they never question a similarly one-dimensional understanding of life in terms of individual or group survival.

But suppose individual survival and reproduction are not life’s imperatives, or at least not the only imperatives? Suppose that there are either no final causes (which is the official truth, fortunately observed only in the breech or nothing in biology would make sense, period), or that the actual final causes come from God, and so are never completely discernible to us? The adaptationist battles against the neutralists are based on insisting on that restricted version of finality – a trait exists, so it must have an adaptive function, ergo insert just-so story here. Not that that exercise is fruitless – the naturalist who asks why a creature treats in young in that way or stores its food in this will often find a good design reason.

But nowadays we are often told that adaptationism is dead. The neutralists tell us that any particular trait might be fortuitous, either non-adaptive in itself, or riding along on the coat-tails of an adaptive trait as a spandrel, and so on. That position does have the advantage of avoiding attributing wrong final causes. But it also avoids any possibility of correct final causes, unlike Bacon who at least acknowledged their existence.

Suppose a trait exists not for the survival of the organism, or not primarily for that, but for, say, the good of the ecosphere, or to make the organism a good food source for some other species, or to limit reproductive success for population control in God’s economy? Adaptationism will be blind to this because it reduces all and everything to bare survival, and that may be entirely misleading – there is no more, or less, solid justification to attribute to nature a metaphysical will to survive than to attribute to it an aesthetic sense or a desire to benefit mankind (a principle which was close to the heart of the founder of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace).

Adaptationism’s custom of putting all the eggs of teleloogy into the basket of “function” would appear, then, to be a classic case of the man with a hammer to whom everything is a nail. Somebody should ask where he got the hammer, and by what warrant he wields it.

On the other hand, if adaptationism can be said to reduce teleology arbitrarily to mere function, then neutralism reduces it to nothing at all. Things happen because stuff happens. As ateleological as you could wish, and twice as meaningless!

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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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