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Adaptation and novelty: teleological explanations in evolutionary biology.

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Abstract

Knives, birds' wings, and mountain slopes are used for certain purposes: cutting, flying, and climbing. A bird's wings have in common with knives that they have been 'designed' for the purpose they serve, which purpose accounts for their existence, whereas mountain slopes have come about by geological processes independently of their uses for climbing. A bird's wings differ from a knife in that they have not been designed or produced by any conscious agent; rather, the wings, like the slopes, are outcomes of natural processes without any intentional causation. Evolutionary biologists use teleological language and teleological explanations. I propose that this use is appropriate, because teleological explanations are hypotheses that can be subject to empirical testing. The distinctiveness of teleological hypotheses is that they account for the existence of a feature in terms of the function it serves; for example, wings have evolved and persist because flying is beneficial to birds by increasing their chances of surviving and reproducing. Features of organisms that are explained with teleological hypotheses include structures, such as wings; processes, such as development from egg to adult; and behaviours, such as nest building. A proximate explanation of these features is the function they serve; an ultimate explanation that they all share is their contribution to the reproductive fitness of the organisms. I distinguish several kinds of teleological explanations, such as natural and artificial, as well as bounded and unbounded, some of which but not others apply to biological explanations.

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