Monday, April 17, 2006

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 [1] 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.]

Mayr concludes:

• 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" 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...


[1] (Mayr, E. (1974) “Teleological and Teleonomic: A New Analysis.” Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Volume XIV, pages 91 -117),

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At 4/17/2006 11:45:00 PM, Blogger Bora Zivkovic said...

If I remember correctly, the term teleonomy was coined by Colin Pittendrigh in 1955 - I think. The problem is, I have trouble getting a copy of the Pittendright paper - do you, by any chance have a PDF of it and can send it by e-mail?

At 4/18/2006 09:44:00 AM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

I don't have a reference to a paper on the subject by Pittendrigh. Mayr cites him as follows:

Pittendrigh, C. S. (1958) Behavior and Evolution (ed. by A. Rose and G. G. Simpson), Yale University Press, New Haven (no page reference cited)

Mayr's 1974 paper is also not available in electronic form. I typed it out in MicroSoft Word for my students a few years ago, and would be happy to forward you a copy via email if you want; just click here.

At 5/16/2006 07:01:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...Allen MacNeill blogs on The Resurrection of Formal and Final Causes. He also talks about this here where he presents (and agrees with) Ernst Mayr's arguments for the legitimacy of teleological language in biology. Of course I would also argue that telic language in biology is legitimate but for different reasons. Let's take a look at the arguments and perhaps a strange implication will come to light...

At 8/09/2009 09:52:00 AM, Anonymous isotelesis said...

Teleonomic activity implies a form of self-processing which is capable of making choices about the future based on building a model of its environment reflecting bounded information. The genetic algorithms of an organism does not preclude the possibility of a self-modifying code which uses inclusive recursion to adjust the metalanguage. Thus an internal ontology map is employed, universal only up to isomorphism with the environment, this means the only 'teleology' that exists is derived from the organism's program, not the laws of physics. The means+ends=0.

At 8/09/2009 10:11:00 AM, Anonymous Hamid Y. Javanbakht said...

The application of means to ends are inevitable, the ends are survival and other higher-level emergent characteristics which deserve to be studied *at their own level* (plectics and teletics), appreciating scaling laws, and distinguishing between analytic, normative, and descriptive models are important.

"An important aspect of intelligent behavior as studied in AI is goal-based problem solving, a framework in which the solution of a problem can be described by finding a sequence of actions that lead to a desirable goal. A goal-seeking system is supposed to be connected to its outside environment by or sensory, channels through which it receives information about the environment and motor, channels through which it acts on the environment. (The term "afferent" is used to describe "inward" sensory flows, and "efferent" is used to describe "outward" motor commands.) In addition, the system has some means of storing in a memory information about the state of the environment (afferent information) and information about actions (efferent information). Ability to attain goals depends on building up associations, simple or complex, between particular changes in states and particular actions that will bring these changes about. Search is the process of discovery and assembly of sequences of actions that will lead from a given state to a desired state. While this strategy may be appropriate for machine learning and problem solving, it is not always suggested for humans (e.g. cognitive load theory and its implications)."

At 2/03/2015 11:56:00 PM, Blogger Sofia Eichhorn said...

Hello Mr. MacNeil,
may I could receive a copy of the Mayr's 1974 paper, that you typed for your students?
I write a Dissertation about the evolutionary and cultural development of the moral, and I discuss the topic of goal-directness in the living nature. The paper would help me a lot.
Sorry for my bad english and many thanks in advance.
Best regards, sofia eichhorn

At 2/05/2015 10:06:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

Greetings, Sophia. I would be happy to email you a copy of Mayr's 1974 paper. The easiest way to do this is for you to email me at my Cornell email address (which I will spell out phonetically, so that it will not be available to spam robots): ay dee em six at cornell dot ee dee you. When I receive your email, I will send you a pdf of Mayr's article via reply email.


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