Thinking about Teleological Causes in Life and Evolution

Teleological causation has been a difficult subject in the philosophy of science for some time. On the one hand, it is difficult to even think of biology except in terms of goals and purposes. On the other hand, using teleological causes has historically allowed researchers quite a bit of room to substitute hand-waving for hard science. Additionally, the question of teleological causation in evolution has been a heated controversy for over a century. In a paper published in the journal Organon F, the Blyth Institute looks at how we can more rigorously engage teleology in biology and evolution.

The paper, “Causal Capabilities of Teleology and Teleonomy in Life and Evolution,” shows how active information can be used to measure teleological action, and shows its benefits over other proposed measurements. It also separates different classes of teleology, specifically primary teleology and teleonomy (teleology resulting from the action of a code or mechanism), showing how each have different causal limitations. Additionally, the causal limitations of teleonomic activity can be reasoned about using information theory, which allows for further analysis of that type of cause.

In all, the Blyth Institute hopes to push forward Woese’s vision to “put the organism back into its environment; connect it again to its evolutionary past; and let us feel that complex flow that is organism, evolution, and environment united” (Woese, “A New Biology for a New Century”).