Re: teleology in terminology

George Murphy (
Wed, 05 Aug 1998 12:05:51 -0400

Paul Arveson wrote:
> 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.

I don't see that the question of "function" has to be a teleological one. One
doesn't have to say that nature, God, or anything is trying for, or aiming for, or has a
goal of, sight in order to say that eyes see. Richard Dawkins doesn't deny that
that's what eyes do. They function to receive, focus, &c light, and thereby confer some
advantages over organisms which don't have anything to do that. This functional sense
of the word "function" (!) just means that some structures do certain things, without
any question about how they arose. If they arose by a process of natural selection
filtering random variations, they still see.
A couple of days ago I watched the original _Rocky_ on video (spare me comments
on my taste!), & there's the scene in which Rocky's locker has been given to someone
else & there's a new lock on it. Angry, he grabs a fire extinguisher from the wall &
smashes the lock off the locker. Fire extinguishers aren't designed for breaking locks,
but that's how this one _functioned_ at this point. The analogy isn't perfect here
because there's a human agent who is trying to accomplish a goal, but I think it
illustrates the point that one can speak of function without any commitment to the idea
that the things was designed, created, or evolved with a purpose in view.

George L. Murphy