Every Living Activity Is Purposive

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Stephen Talbott:

"A coordinating power at work in evolving populations is as obviously apparent as the analogous power at work in developing organisms. It’s not a conclusion based on radical new evidence, but rather one that depends only on a willingness to look with eyes that see, just as we do when observing the processes at work in a developing individual. To witness this coordinating power may not be immediately to understand everything we would like to know about it, but surely our only hope of understanding rests on our first recognizing and acknowledging the observable fact of a directive, purposive activity. My pointing to this observable fact will come in Chapter 19. But first we need to deal with some of the prejudices blocking our way forward.

Every living activity we actually observe is purposive, or “teleological”, or, as I have at times called it, “telos-realizing”. It always has a holistic dimension, and it always represents a further addition to a life story. We find ourselves watching, not necessarily a conscious planning (which humans are capable of), but rather the self-expression, or self-realization, of a living being. Physical events and causes are coordinated in the interests of a more or less centered agency that we recognize in cell, organism, colony, population, species, and perhaps even in ecological contexts.

This coordination, these interests, this agency — they are already assumed, consciously or otherwise, by all biologists in the case of the individual organism’s development and behavior. They are assumed, that is (as I have frequently been pointing out), insofar as one is doing biology, and not merely physics and chemistry.


The whole business of telos-directed biological activity, wherever we have observed it, is to bridge radically different physical processes. That is, it brings diverse and complex physical phenomena — for example, in the brain, heart, liver, intestines, and skin of a developing mammal — into integral unity and harmony, making a larger whole of them. When we have seen this purposive coordination and harmonization in one context involving many distinct animate elements, it is only natural to look for it in other, higher- or lower-level contexts also involving distinct animate elements.

The coordinating agency we are talking about establishes the relatedness of physical entities (whose constituents may be continually changing) and does not arise from them. The problem biologists have at this point lies in their pre-existing insistence that all aspects of our understanding of life must be couched solely in terms of lawful physical interactions. But this doesn’t work against the claim that the rational, thoughtful, purposive, and intentional dimensions of what is going on — that is, the most fully meaningful dimensions — are almost by definition not physical, but yet are very real. The biologist may want to quarrel with this view, but the quarrel cannot be furthered by endlessly repeating that the meaning of things shouldn’t be mentioned because only physical interactions are allowed into the discussion.

The fact is, we do not currently understand the nature and origin of the observed powers of coordination in living organisms, just as we do not understand the nature and origin of physical law. Nor can we assume that the inanimate principles are more fundamental than the animate ones. What we can assume is that the teleological dimension of an organism’s performance comes into play at the very root of its material being, just as does the play of physical law. If anything, an inherent power to orchestrate physically lawful activity in a purposive manner, however poorly understood, would seem higher or more fundamental than the physical processes being orchestrated.2

Given our ignorance of the ultimate nature of things, the most immediate path forward when the teleological question arises in a particular context, is simply to observe whether the adjustment of means toward the fulfillment of needs and interests is actually occurring in that context.

But this much can be said already. Wherever we find telos-realizing entities somehow bound together in a larger unity, we see one example after another where the more comprehensive entity or context manifests in turn a teleological character of its own. Whether it is all the molecules in a cell, or all the cells in an organism, or all the organisms in a coherent group (say, an insect colony or mammalian social group), we always find a weaving of lower-level narratives into the distinctive fabric of a larger story.


The reality of a coordinating power weaving through and governing large, scattered populations of organisms is already put on display for us before we even think about evolution. It is displayed, for example, in instinctual behavior such as that of migrating monarch butterflies in eastern North America. Huge numbers of these gather from throughout a wide area, including parts of the United States and Canada, and travel thousands of miles over multiple generations to a precise spot in Mexico — all this along aerial pathways they have never traveled before.

Or consider the sophisticated collective behavior of a wolf pack, an ant colony, or even the cells — bacterial and otherwise — of a biofilm. The latter has been termed a “city for microbes”, and the complex, teleologically rich organization of a city is not an unapt picture of the life of a biofilm. In all these different sorts of collectives, the power of end-directed coordination, whatever we take it to be, seems to work across the relevant communities, and all the way down to the molecules that actively participate in the performance of the various organisms.


So the problem for biologists has been to explain, or explain away, their persistent and seemingly inescapable language of purpose. And the need is to do so in a respectable, materialistic manner — that is, to explain it without having to acknowledge that organisms really are purposive beings in the sense of exercising, or being possessed by, an interior (immaterial) activity of a thought-full and intentional sort."


Is Teleology Disallowed in the Theory of Evolution?

Stephen Talbott:

An animal’s development from zygote to maturity is a classic picture of telos-realizing activity. Through its agency and purposiveness, an animal holds its disparate parts in an effective unity, making a single, ever more fully realized whole of them. This purposiveness informs the parts “downward” from the whole and “outward” from the inner intention, and is invisible to strictly physical analysis of the interaction of one part with another.

Biologists in general have failed to take seriously the reality of the animal’s agency, and have considered it unthinkable that something analogous to this agency could play through populations of organisms in evolution, just as it plays through populations of cells in an organism. I have tried to suggest that there are no grounds for making a radical distinction between the two cases.

And then, addressing the idea that natural selection explains (or explains away) biological purposiveness, I focused on two closely related problems:

• The preservation of purposive (functional) traits — or any traits at all — by natural selection neither explains their origin nor shows how they can be understood solely in terms of physical lawfulness.

• Selection itself is defined in terms of, and thoroughly depends on, the purposive lives of organisms. This purposiveness must come to intense expression in order to provide the basic pre-conditions for natural selection. These conditions are the production of variation; the assembly and transmission of an inheritance; and the struggle for survival. Since the entire logic of natural selection is rooted in a play of purposiveness, it cannot explain that purposiveness.

My aim has been to clear away some of the major stumbling blocks biologists inevitably feel whenever evolution is said to have a purposive, or teleological, character. There remains the question whether evolution does in fact show such a character. Does the evolution of species show the same kind of creative thought we see at work in the development of individual organisms? Can we even intelligently imagine such thought not being at work?

We will see that — just as with individual development — the question is answered as soon as it is asked. In both cases, once the metaphysical biases against the very idea of teleology are removed, all we need to do is look, and it’s as if our eyes themselves are enough to give us our answer.



  • Chapter 18: Teleology and Evolution. By Stephen Talbott. This is a preliminary draft of one chapter of a book-in-progress entitled, “Organisms and Their Evolution — Agency and Meaning in the Drama of Life”.