Teleology Research Paper Example

This sample Teleology Research Paper is published for educational and informational purposes only. If you need help writing your assignment, please use our research paper writing service and buy a paper on any topic at affordable price. Also check our tips on how to write a research paper, see the lists of research paper topics, and browse research paper examples.

The term teleology (from the Greek telos, meaning end) refers broadly to end-directedness, the idea that some things exist, have certain traits, or do certain things for the sake of some end. Many familiar cases of teleology are directly psychological, as when someone goes to the store in order to get milk. Here the behavior is intentional and the end is the object of the agent’s intention. In other cases, involving artifacts, psychology plays an indirect but equally crucial role through design and use. For example, a spark plug exists, is present in the engine, and sparks at a certain point in the combustion cycle for the sake of igniting the fuel. Though such objects have no intentions of their own, they have proper functions—things they may be said to do for the sake of some end, as opposed to other things they just happen to do (such as the spark plug’s making a noise when it sparks).

The most interesting questions about teleology concern living things. We commonly apply teleological concepts to the parts and features of organisms. The heart, for example, is said to have the proper function of pumping the blood, which in turn occurs for the sake of blood circulation and the biological ends of nutrient distribution and waste removal; pumping the blood is what the heart is for in the organism, as opposed to other things it does merely as side-effects (such as making a lub-dub noise). This is a teleological claim analogous to claims about artifacts, and it licenses similar function-based evaluations: Just as a spark plug that does not fire under the right conditions is a defective spark plug, so too a heart that fails to pump in certain ways under the right conditions is a defective heart. Similar points may be made even about the parts and features of plants—for example, a color pattern on a flower may have the biological function of attracting pollinating insects, this being what that adaptation is for in the life of such plants. The question is whether it is legitimate to apply teleological concepts to the natural world in this way and, if so, how this application is to be understood.

It might at first seem that all uses of teleological concepts in biology are ruled out by neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. Certainly the theory does reject the idea that the process of evolution is teleological. It is another question, however, whether the products of evolution— the parts and features of evolved organisms—might stand in teleological relations. In fact, many philosophers of biology agree that natural selection itself provides a basis for teleological judgments about adaptations and their relevant effects. This is because natural selection mimics design in an important respect. A designer makes a spark plug the way it is and puts it in the engine so that it will spark and ignite the fuel, and this means that these effects partly explain (via the designer’s intentions) the presence of the spark plug in the engine, setting them apart as proper functions and ends served by the spark plug. Natural selection does not, of course, deliberately do anything or act with any foresight, but it still yields a similar relation between an adaptation and certain effects it has. In the case of the evolved color pattern, for example, the effect of attracting pollinating insects partly explains (via natural selection) the trait’s coming to be a standard feature of the evolved species, setting this effect apart as specially relevant to the formation and life of this species of plant. Many have argued that this provides a basis for sensible talk of proper functions and ends in connection with biological adaptations.

The above approach sharply contrasts with any approach that seeks to explain teleological facts about organisms by attributing teleology to the processes by which species are formed. A common form of creation-ism, for example, posits direct creation of each species by a divinity, giving organisms a design-based teleology analogous to that of artifacts. Intelligent design theory, by contrast, may accept evolution and common ancestry, but still posits supernatural direction of evolutionary processes on the grounds that neo-Darwinism alone “cannot possibly” explain the evolution of certain complex structures. Proponents of intelligent design argue, for example, that providence guides the genetic mutations upon which natural selection acts.

While the doctrine of special creation has been discredited by a wealth of empirical evidence for evolution, intelligent design theory is trickier. Because there is no way to demonstrate the absence of divine intervention in historical processes, the theory can never be disproved. For this very reason, however, it also falls plainly outside the scope of science. The biological work cited by proponents of intelligent design would remain within science if it were used simply to point out puzzles and shape scientific research projects to try to solve them. But by treating the puzzles as grounds for embracing supernatural hypotheses, intelligent design becomes a religious alternative to the scientific enterprise rather than a scientific alternative to neo-Darwinism, as its proponents often claim it to be when advocating its inclusion in public school curricula.

Historically, the track record for the God-of-the-gaps approach—that is, appeals to the supernatural to explain whatever is currently difficult to explain scientifically— has not been impressive, as claims about what science cannot possibly explain are steadily overturned. Still, despite its not being science, intelligent design theory could of course turn out to be true. If it did, it would provide for a partially design-based biological teleology and a purposive direction for evolution itself. Strictly speaking, theists could have this general result even without embracing intelligent design at the level of natural processes. They could, for example, posit divine influence in the shaping of the background laws, allowing for a more general divine purpose behind creation without the micromanagement of evolution. It is worth noting that at least for part of his career Darwin himself was not averse to that idea, and similar claims have been advanced outside of biology as well. Some have argued, for example, that a divine intelligence is necessary to explain the highly unlikely confluence of “finely tuned” physical laws, physical constants, and cosmological conditions that was crucial for the eventual emergence and evolution of life in the universe. According to such a view, which is not logically inconsistent with neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, there could be a very general design-based teleology in addition to the teleology rooted in natural selection.


  1. Allen, Colin, Mark Bekoff, and George Lauder, eds. 1988. Nature’s Purposes: Analyses of Function and Design in Biology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  2. FitzPatrick, William. 2000. Teleology and the Norms of Nature. New York: Garland Publishers.
  3. Neander, Karen. 1991. Functions as Selected Effects: TheConceptual Analyst’s Defense. Philosophy of Science 58: 168–184.
  4. Orr, H. Allen. 2005. Devolution: Why Intelligent Design Isn’t New Yorker, May 30: 40–52.
  5. Polkinghorne, John. 1998. Belief in God in an Age of Science. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  6. Wright, Larry. 1976. Teleological Explanations: An Etiological Analysis of Goals and Functions. Berkeley: University of California Press.

See also:

Free research papers are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to buy a custom research paper on any topic and get your high quality paper at affordable price.


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get discount 10% for the first order. Promo code: cd1a428655