Re: teleology in terminology

Loren Haarsma (
Thu, 6 Aug 1998 18:19:46 -0400 (EDT)

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.
> Comments?

Usage is necessarily imprecise. A word can (properly) have a spectrum
of connotations, depending upon context. I believe this applies to
teleological language in biology.

Here's a related example: (1) Why did I go to the store today? Because
I wanted to buy some milk. (2) Why does a rock fall when dropped?
Because the earth's gravitational field exerts a force upon it. In the
first question and answer, the words "why" and "because" are filled with
teleological content. In the second exchange, they are practically
devoid of it. A spectrum of examples can be made between those two.

In most computer programs, each line of code is specifically written by
a programmer. Each line of code has a function and a purpose. Some
computer programs are written indirectly, via genetic or evolutionary
algorithms. (e.g. "artificial life" programs and some process control
codes) When we examine these programs, we also try to determine the
"function" and "purpose" of each line of code. Even though those terms
have different connotations, depending upon how the code was written, we
use the same teleological language. We understand the different
meanings from the context.

For that reason, we probably won't make much headway in arguing that
Materialists should abandon teleological language.

-- teleological language is equally appropriate (and highly appropriate)
for every element of creation, whether created by fiat or created by

Loren Haarsma