More Thoughts about Evolutionary Teleology

In “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’,” I address the proposition that humans have natural ends that have arisen through evolution and which imply the necessity of negative “natural rights.” My purpose here is not to revisit the proposition, which I firmly reject for the reasons given  in “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’,” but to focus on my reasons for rejecting the linchpin of the proposition: evolutionary teleology, or teleonomy. This is the

apparent purposefulness and of goal-directedness of structures and functions in living organisms that derive from their evolutionary history, adaptation for reproductive success, or generally, due to the operation of a program.

Francisco Ayala offers a specific example in his essay, “Teleology and Teleological Explanations,” at Evolutionary Biology:

The wings of birds call for teleological explanation: the genetic constitutions responsible for their configuration came about because wings serve to fly and flying contributes to the reproductive success of birds. But there was nothing in the constitution of the remote ancestors of birds that would necessitate the appearance of wings in their descendants. Wings came about as the consequence of a long sequence of events, where at each stage the most advantageous alternative was selected among those that happened to be available; but what alternatives were available at any one time depended, at least in part, on chance events.

In short, the end (survival of the species through reproductive success) dictates the means (the development of wings). Nonsense. “Contingent teleology” is nothing more than “what happened as a result of breeding, random mutation, geophysical processes, and survival of the fittest and/or luckiest, as the  case may be.” The usual shorthand for all of that is “natural selection.” But “selection” is inappropriate because — unless there is such a thing as Intelligent Design — no one (or no thing) is selecting anything.

Evolutionary zoologist John O. Reiss exposes the fallacy of teleology in Not by Design: Retiring Darwin’s Watchmaker. This is from the first chapter:

The general mode of thinking that I object to goes as follows: “character x plays a useful (‘adaptive’) role in the life of organism y; therefore, character x must have evolved by natural selection for this role.” The definitional equation of adaptations and past natural selection is fairly standard in evolutionary biology today: “a feature is an adaptation for a particular function if it has evolved by natural selection for that function” (Futuyma 2005, 265). When combined with the assumption that useful features or characters are in fact adaptations by this definition, a teleological role for natural selection results. In this role, natural selection is inferred to have directed evolution from an unimproved (poorly adapted) past state toward an improved (well-adapted) present state, merely on the basis that the present state exists and is well adapted….

While the best solution might be to do what Wallace suggested so long ago—to completely extirpate the term natural selection from the lexicon of evolutionary biology—the term is by now too well established to replace….

…I believe that the continued teleological use of the concept of natural selection, in spite of the obvious problems involved, is due primarily to the absence of another evolutionary principle that can be used to interpret patterns of macroevolutionary transformation. Fundamental to my restriction of the term natural selection will be the reintroduction of another principle, related to and often confused with that of natural selection. This principle is founded on the concept of the necessary conditions for an organism’s (or other evolutionary entity’s) continued existence; it states that (by definition) the existence of any organism is contingent on its satisfaction of these conditions.

Of particular relevance is Reiss’s observation that “natural selection is inferred to have directed evolution from an unimproved (poorly adapted) past state toward an improved (well-adapted) present state, merely on the basis that the present state exists and is well adapted.” That formulation of evolutionary teleology exposes it as an instance of the hypostatization fallacy:

Hypostatization (together with the closely related fallacy of reification) may be the most common of all fallacies. Whole systems of philosophy, politics, religion, science, and social theories are built on or supported by this fallacy.11


“Nature’s purposes are always pure, therefore we should always accede to her.” Nature has no purposes.

“The only just laws are those that relieve a society’s suffering.” Laws do not “relieve” anything, and “societies,” do not suffer.

“Industry is a danger to both nature and society.” Here are three hypostatized abstractions, industry, nature, and society. Industry is not a “thing” that does anything, and neither nature or society are things to which anything is done. Some industries might do something that is harmful to some natural things or some persons in some society, but treating any of these as entities, even collective entities, is fallacious.

“What are personal considerations in the face of the needs of society, the fate of the nation, the preservation of culture?” Since, society has no needs, nations do not have fates, and there is no such thing as culture to preserve, personal considerations are all that are left.

“My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you: Ask what you can do for your country.” -(John F. Kennedy) Obviously rhetorical, and therefore, all the more subtle. Behind the rhetoric is the insidious concept that citizens exist for the sake of a country (state or government), the opposite of the intention of the American Constitutional, that government exists for the sake of the citizens.

Evolutionary teleology boils down to this: Species seek survival, therefore species acquire characteristics that improve their chances of surviving. In fact:

  • Species do not do anything as species; there is no such thing as species-consciousness.
  • Species do not acquire characteristics in the way that a person acquires a pair of glasses to improve his ability to see.
  • It is tautologous to say that something survives because it has “acquired” the wherewithal to survive.

The preceding analysis points to another, more subtle, fallacy in evolutionary teleology, a fallacy known as observation selection bias. Philosopher Nick Bostrom illustrates it, in “A Primer on the Anthropic Principle“:

[S]uppose you’re a young investor pondering whether to invest your retirement savings in bonds or equity. You are vaguely aware of some studies showing that over sufficiently lengthy periods of time, stocks have, in the past, substantially outperformed bonds (an observation which is often referred to as the “equity premium puzzle”). So you are tempted to put your money into equity. You might want to consider, though, that a selection effect might be at least partly responsible for the apparent superiority of stocks. While it is true that most of the readily available data does favor stocks, this data is mainly from the American and British stock exchanges, which both have continuous records of trading dating back over a century. But is it an accident that the best data comes from these exchanges? Both America and Britain have benefited during this period from stable political systems and steady economic growth. Other countries have not been so lucky. Wars, revolutions, and currency collapses have at times obliterated entire stock exchanges, which is precisely why continuous trading records are not available elsewhere. By looking at only the two greatest success stories, one would risk overestimating the historical performance of stocks. A careful investor would be wise to factor in this consideration when designing her portfolio….

The focus of evolutionary teleology is on evolutionary success. The ultimate success is survival, which — in a teleological explanation of evolution– is the ultimate purpose of a species, the end toward which it “acquires” characteristics. Does this imply that extinct species had the ultimate purpose of extinction, thus “acquiring” characteristics that ensured extinction?  More plausibly, some species happen to survive (and some to die out) because their characteristics — along with the “luck” of not being (or being) in the wrong places at the wrong times — help to ensure their survival (or extinction) in the face of threats beyond their control: geophysical changes (abrupt and gradual), predators, diseases.

The focus on success ignores the fact that extinct species evolved to some degree before meeting with threats that they could not surmount. It also assumes that success to date ensures success in the future. Imagine an adherent of evolutionary teleology who is transported to a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth. By his reckoning, dinosaurs would have “selected” their characteristics in order to ensure their survival. The same person, thrust a million years into the future, might conclude that cockroaches were destined to inherit the earth.