teleology in terminology

Paul Arveson (
Wed, 5 Aug 1998 10:51:17 -0400

I asked whether or not the word 'function' has a teleological
connotation in biology, which would be inconsistent under
neo-Darwinian theory.

I am not satisfied with the responses so far. It seems to me
that no matter how sophisticated an organism is, all that a
neo-Darwinian description can say is that one organism's genes
reproduced more than its alternatives in its given environment.
In consistent Darwinian language, there are no 'functions', no
'designs', no intentions, no purposes, no solutions.
Things just are what they are.

Although I am not a biologist, I will try to formulate an example.

In conventional language we might say that a lipid molecule
'functions' or 'serves' to isolate the inside of a cell
from the outside. This enables the cell to maintain control of its
internal ionic balances.

It seems to me that this terminology is strictly speaking unacceptable.
In strictly Darwinian/Dawkinsian language, we might have to say that
'cells which by chance had DNA that contained a gene for synthesizing
molecules with the lipid structure and placing them in their walls
led to increased reproduction of such cells relative to those
that did not have these lipid molecules in their walls. Because
of their structure, lipid molecules repel water and small
ions, which stabilizes the cell, which caused a gene for these
molecules to have a differential reproductive advantage. Any other
kind of molecule with this structure would do just as well, but
apparently the gene for lipids occurred first, and lipids were more
efficient than their predecessors, so this gene was conserved.'

This terminology is perhaps more consistent, but it is certainly
clumsy and perhaps that is why biologists prefer the more 'compact'
terminology. But in so doing they undermine their own theory of
evolution, which knows nothing about functions and services and
purposes for anything. I find this quite ironic.


Paul Arveson, Code 724, Research Physicist, Signatures Directorate
Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division
9500 MacArthur Blvd., West Bethesda, MD 20817-5700
(301) 227-3831