Teleological and Teleonomic: A New(er) Analysis
AUTHOR: Ernst Mayr
SOURCE: Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Volume XIV, pages 91 -117
COMMENTARY: Allen MacNeill
On April 17, 2006 04:35 PM David B. Benson wrote in the Panda's Thumb (scroll way down):
[Can you] explain why you state that ant colonies, cities, and other emergent organizations have purpose? In particular, what is wrong with mere teleomentalism, that an ascription of purposeful behavior is only metaphor?
Ernst Mayr  distinquished between two different kinds of natural processes that appear to be “goal directed”:
Teleomatic processes: Processes that simply follow natural laws, i.e. lead to a result consequential to concomitant physical forces, and the reaching of their end state is not controlled by a built-in program. The law of gravity and the second law of thermodynamics are among the natural laws which most frequently govern teleomatic processes. Examples include the cooling to ambient temperature of a red hot bar of iron and the falling of a rock to the ground.
Teleonomic processes: Processes that owe their goal-directedness to the operation of a program. The term teleonomic implies goal-direction. This, in turn, implies a dynamic process rather than a static condition, as represented by a system. Examples include the development of an adult organism from a fertilized zygote and the building of a dam by beavers.
Mayr argues very strongly that the common use of teleological language by biologists is legitimate because it recognizes the goal-directedness of biological processes. He also stresses that, although many biological processes (such as ontogeny) are clearly goal-directed, they owe their goal-directedness to the operation of programs, such as the genetic program encoded in the DNA. He concludes that although such programs themselves are goal-directed (i.e. purposeful), the process by which such programs have come into being – evolution by natural selection – is NOT itself goal directed.
[ I would state this slightly differently from Mayr: that there is no observable evidence that the evolutionary processes by which such programs come into being are goal-directed (i.e. “designed” or “purposeful”). Therefore, although such purposes may exist, they are invisible to us on principle and therefore irrelevent to scientific explanations of natural phenomena.]
• The use of so-called teleological language by biologists is legitimate; it neither implies a rejection of physico-chemical explanation nor does it imply non-causal explanation
• At the same time, it is illegitimate to describe evolutionary processes or trends as goal-directed (teleological). Selection [reifies] past phenomena (mutation, recombination, etc.), but does NOT plan for the future, at least not in any specific way [as far as we can tell]
• Processes (behavior) whose goal-directedness is controlled by a program may be referred to as teleonomic
• Processes which reach an end state caused by natural laws (e.g. gravity, second law of thermodynamics) but not by a program may be designated as teleomatic
• Programs [of the type described above] are in part or entirely the product of natural selection
• Teleonomic (i.e. programmed) behavior occurs only in organisms (and man-made machines) and constitutes a clear-cut difference between the levels of complexity in living and in inanimate nature [i.e. they are “emergent properties” of living systems, not present in the non-living materials of which living organisms or their artifacts are composed]
• Teleonomic explanations are strictly causal and mechanistic. They give no comfort to adherents of vitalistic concepts [including supporters of “intelligent design,” if such supporters believe that the kinds of programs desctibed above come into existence as the result of a purposeful process]
• The heuristic value of the teleological Fragestellung makes it a powerful tool in biological analysis, from the study of the structural configuration of macromolecules up to the study of cooperative behavior in social systems.
I agree with Mayr on virtually every point. In other of his publications, Mayr argues strongly for the idea that biological systems exhibit “emergent properties,” and that this is one of the primary differences between biology and the other natural sciences, such as physics. At the same time (and contra some supporters of “emergent properties,” such as Andrew North Whitehead and Teilhard de Chardin), Mayr argues very strongly for the naturalist position that such properties are well within both the darwinian paradigm and the tradition of naturalistic explanation that underlies the natural sciences.
Given the foregoing, I therefore believe that the kind of teleonomy exhibited by ants and ant colonies is indeed a natural property of such biological systems, and not just a “teleomentalism” (i.e. a semantic distinction rooted in human language and cognition, having no actual reality in nature). Furthermore, it seems to me that the kinds of advances that we have seen since Mayr wrote his paper – developments in artificial intelligence and the programming of cybernetic “expert systems”, advances in genetics, and especially a much deeper understanding of the processes of evolutionary development – lend support to Mayr’s analysis, and that using Mayr’s theoretical framework can not only assist people working in the aforementioned fields, it can also lead to some clarity in understanding the origin and evolution of purpose in nature.
This analysis leaves us with the following problem: Is the term "teleology" an umbrella term that subsumes both teleomatic and teleonomic processes, and if so, what term is most appropriate for the kinds of unambiguously goal-directed behavior exhibited by humans (and our artifacts, such as heat-seeking missiles)? My preference is to reserve the term "teleology" for the latter (i.e. clearly goal-seeking processes initiated and controlled by rational entities, such as ourselves), and apply the terms teleonomy and teleomatic the way Mayr suggests in his article.
I believe that these distinctions clearly and unambiguously distinguish between natural processes that appear to be (or even are) goal-directed, such as ontology, and processes that are not, such as natural selection and other evolutionary mechanisms.
And yes, before an ID supporter points out the obvious, the foregoing analysis doesn't eliminate the problem of evolution versus ID, since ID theorists can still argue that God (remember, I asserted a while back that I will use the proper/role name "God" instead of "the intelligent designer"...it requires fewer keystrokes and is more honest IMHO) both "designed" and "guided" the processes by which Mayr's "programs" bring about teleonomic goal-seeking behavior.
But that discussion will have to wait for another post...
 (Mayr, E. (1974) “Teleological and Teleonomic: A New Analysis.” Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Volume XIV, pages 91 -117),