Teleology and the extended evolutionary synthesis

Jonathan Bartlett is an ID guy, but he has commented here, mainly because I mentioned favourably the conference he organised on Alternatives to Methodological Naturalism, which has now become a book that sounds well worth exploring. He recently did a podcast, available on YouTube, suggesting that the unifying theme behind the various disparate strands that make up what is called the “Extended Evoluionary Synthesis” is teleonomy.

For the uninformed, teleonomy is another term for “inherent teleology” – the teleology that Aristotle attributed to substantial entities within nature. It was really coined to create wriggle-room for the evident self-direction of living things (and is hence more restricted in scope than Aristotle’s concept, which includes non-living things too) without “allowing God a foot in the door”. In practice, as Bartlett helpfully points out, it rapidly became restricted to the functions of the organism itself, and remains strictly excluded from standard evolutionary theory (as well as sitting loose to science’s exclusion of final causation).

The reason for this is obvious: the ruling paradigm in evolution, The Neodarwinian Synthesis, as well as its increasingly dominant daughter, Neutral Theory, are doctrinally wedded to the unguidedness and consequent open-endedness of evolution. Although this is, as I have pointed out before (together with many others), a metaphysical position which cannot be demonstrated from science, it underpins the way evolution is usually viewed. Natural selection is simply the quasi-designing effect of a randomly varying environment, and variation is random with respect to fitness. In Neutral Theory fitness is not under consideration at all except insofar as lack of it causes non-survival from purifying selection. Even Evolutionary Creationists generally seek to square this unguidedness with the Creator God by inventing the concept of a co-creating, ateleological natural creation – by which they mean “chance” once one gets behind the language of “freedom” or “spontaneity”.

But Bartlett suggests that the common feature of the various new processes discovered in evolution by Third Way members and others, some of which processes were discussed at the recent Royal Society symposium in London, is that organisms play an active and even intelligent part in their own evolution. That might involve niche construction, cultural inheritance, sexual selection, targeted mutations or other mechanisms.

I guess his presentation will be of some interest to someone like our own Sy Garte, who has already stirred things up in the Christian evolutionary community by a paper suggesting inherent teleology (that is, teleonomy) at the heart of evolution. It’s hard to think why teleonomy should be controversial in a theistic context, but controversy would seem to follow (a) from the common metaphysical commitment to “God’s use of randomness” in evolution, mentioned above, and (b) from a commitment to the rather recent conviction that God desires to hide his hand in nature – and maybe teleonomy looks a little bit too much like him spilling the beans. I discuss chance, amongst many examples, here; God’s “hiddenness”, here.

I just want to add a couple of thoughts about what the acceptance of teleonomy might mean for the future.

The first, and most obvious effect of accepting teleonomy is that it knocks away the religious role of evolution as a way to make atheism intellectually respectable. This is not absolutely straightforward, so let me explain. The religious role of Darwinian evolution is that, for the first time, it proposed an intuitative way in which Epicurean chance, the only realistic alternative to God, could act as Creator. Indeed, population genetics (in the form of the Hardy-Weinberg equation) is framed in a way that makes evolution seem inevitable if just a few simple principles are in place, making it applicable to virtually every scientific field from cosmology to economics. Darwinism gives the appearance of making progress ultimately transcendant of specific mechanisms, so that chance and natural selection can produce anything from biochemical convergent evolution to the Universe itself.

If, though, chance variation and natural selection are shown not to be anything like sufficient to explain biological evolution, this makes it likely that they would be incapable of achieving much at all, were the teleonomic mechanisms not also in place. In that case chance begins to look, again, like it did to pre-Darwinian scientists and to most ordinary people still: a cause of nothing much.

Bartlett points out that “Extended Synthesis” supporters are either silent on how their favoured mechanisms came to be, or simply assume that they in turn were the product of Darwinian mechanisms in some distant past, when chance could achieve more than is empirically the case, or perhaps even theoretically possible, now. As he points out, though, for undirected natural selection to create teleonomy is an even bigger ask than for it to create the organisms themselves – quite apart from the long-recognised philosophical problem of an undirected process producing directedness (analogous to the problem of an unconscious evolutionary process producing human consciousness).

This is why, although inherent teleology does not in any way prove the existence of an external source of teleology such as God, it does render such a teleogical First Cause far more plausible than the sole alternative, an ultimately blind chance.

Evolutionary teleonomy, though, also takes us back beyond the frankly atheistic direction science has taken in the light of Darwin’s theory, to the very assumptions on which modern science itself was built by Francis Bacon and his followers. For, as I pointed out in a recent post, the religious motivation for the “mechanical philosophy” that science adopted in rejection of Aristotle was, in part at least, to be rid of any agency within nature that might be regarded as rivalling God as sole Lord of creation.

The world therefore came to be seen as composed of passive corpuscles colliding and reacting in obedience to the “laws of nature”, ordained by God, which ruled in the Book of Nature just as the Laws of Moses ruled in the Book of Scripture. Even the self-evident teleology of living creatures came to be seen, after Descartes, as illusory. To him animals were mere automatons – a conclusion that justified any experimentation and the extreme cruelties of scientific vivisection, until the nineteenth century when political sentiment finally overruled scientific “objectivity” (see a more extended treatment of this at the end of chapter 9 of my e-book God’s Good Earth under the heading “Metaphysical Issues”).

The social pendulum (driving scientific reasoning in this case – one cannot separate science and society) has now swung back to treating the higher animals, at least, as truly sentient and therefore volitional beings. In fact we’ve reached, as a culture, a crazy opposite extreme of granting not only certain animals, but even the River Ganges, the legal status of persons. A cynic might conclude that this societal change makes theories involving teleonomy as inevitable as theories of evolution were in the nineteenth century “era of progress”, or anthropological theories of racial inferiority in the age of European exploration. More soberly, we’re simply returning to a saner and plainer view of the world – a world in which entities with genuine goals have a true and obvious place that, contra the anti-Aristotelian founders of modern science, doesn’t rival God’s sovereignty at all – indeed, by re-enchanting the universe, it actually points to him.

For the biblical view was never that creation was a passive and law-driven mass of particles, but rather a whole range of phenomena serving God by existing according to their created natures. Some of those natures were active participants in the outworking of God’s purposes according to their capacities. This not only overturns a basic metaphysical tenet of the science of the last five hundred years that final causes do not exist, but a (paradoxically) contradictory modern notion underlying most modern theistic evolution: that of a “free” universe effectively independent of God and “co-creating” through the chance events of evolution.

Teleonomy is antithetical to Epicurean chance (though it does not preclude the creature’s own epistemological chance, whereby an animal may or may not find food where it searches, or a directed mutation may or may not succeed in an adaptive outcome). But even though, unlike chance (which causes nothing), teleonomy is a real cause in the world, it is intrinsically more capable of obedience to God’s purposes than Epicurean chance, which by definition is beyond God’s control, could ever be.

The logical Christian conclusion from teleonomy, it seems to me, is that we live in an enchanted, purposeful natural world under God, inhabited by true creatures we can know as beings-in-themseleves, rather than as mere machines after the models of Descartes and modern molecular biology.

I have to say I rather like the way biology might be going, if that were the case.

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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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2 Responses to Teleology and the extended evolutionary synthesis

  1. Hanan says:

    Good day sir,

    Where would one find Sy’s paper?

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Hanan

    If you’re an ASA member it’s on their website here:

    If not, Sy put a link on his blog:

    And if that’s no good e-mail me!

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