A Case for Teleology in Modern Biology
Haverford College. Department of Philosophy
Place of Publication
Table of Contents
Although teleology, or explanations in terms of goals or ends, has historically been integrated in biology, within the past few hundred years, mechanistic explanations have dominated the field and teleology has largely fallen out of favor. A prominent advocate for the dismissal of teleology in biology is evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) who proposed teleonomy, or explanations of goals or ends as directed by a program, to be the proper way to understand biological processes and development of organisms. However, if we undertake Mayr’s teleonomy instead of teleology, we are essentially left with biological reductionism and see living beings as complicated machines. If this is the case, we lose an understanding of what counts as a successful organism and therefore cannot speak of mutations or improper development in organisms. Thus, I suggest that we need to understand living beings for what they are and invoke Michael Thompson’s notion of life form which suggests that living beings are distinguished from non-living artefacts insofar as they have a life form that encapsulates their capacities and activities beyond immediate response to being merely affected by their environment. I argue that this life form is the irreducible potential that Alan Gotthelf claims defines Aristotelian teleology and is what ultimately separates living beings from non-living artefacts, thus refuting Mayr’s concept of teleonomy as a prominent understanding in biology, and bringing back Aristotelian teleology in individual organisms.