Did Darwin say that selection was teleological?

A reader writes:

Your comment that Darwin provided biology with a non-teleological explanation of adaptation is wrong. Darwin saw selection explanations of adaptations as teleological explanations, as discussed in this article.

LA replies:

The article, “Darwin was a teleologist,” by James G. Lennox, costs $32 to download as a pdf. However, here is the abstract of the article:

It is often claimed that one of Darwin’s chief accomplishments was to provide biology with a non-teleological explanation of adaptation. A number of Darwin’s closest associates, however, and Darwin himself, did not see it that way. In order to assess whether Darwin’s version of evolutionary theory does or does not employ teleological explanation, two of his botanical studies are examined. The result of this examination is that Darwin sees selection explanations of adaptations as teleological explanations. The confusion in the nineteenth century about Darwin”s attitude to teleology is argued to be a result of Darwin’s teleological explanations not conforming to either of the dominant philosophical justifications of teleology at that time. Darwin’s explanatory practices conform well, however, to recent defenses of the teleological character of selection explanations.

If it is true that Darwin said that selection explanations of adaptations were teleological explanations, then Darwinism collapses of its own internal contradictions. According to Darwinism, random mutations (or variations, as Darwin called them) appear for no reason, no purpose. They have no teleology. They are pure accidents. They are then “selected” for one reason and one reason only: they help organisms produce more offspring, so that the mutations survive and become dominant. If there is such a thing as warm-bloodedness, or winged flight, or human consciousness, these things don’t exist because they fulfilled any purpose that there be such things as warm-bloodedness, winged flight, and human consciousness. They exist solely because they helped their possessors live longer and have more offspring. Thus bacteria and beetles serve the Darwinian “purpose” of evolution as well as cats, dogs, songbirds, and man. According to Darwinism properly understood, cats, dogs, songbirds, and man are completely unnecessary to life.

But it appears that even Darwin could not stay consistently with that bleak and nihilistic vision. As I’ve shown before, the Darwinists, being human, cannot accept a non-teleological description of the world, because a non-teleological description of the world is radically untrue and fails to account for reality as we experience it, and so they add teleology onto their non-teleological scheme. Just as consistent liberalism (demanding total non-discrimination) is incompatible with existence in this world, making unprincipled exceptions to liberalism necessary, in the same way, consistent, non-teleological Darwinism is incompatible both with existence in this world and with our experience of existence in this world, making unprincipled exceptions necessary.

Neither the Darwinians not the liberals should be allowed to get away with their unprincipled exceptions. They must be made to face the truth of their reductive and unlivable ideologies, with no softening, “humanizing” escapes allowed. This is the only way to defeat these false belief systems.

* * *

Here are previous entries touching on this theme:

The transparent intellectual fraud that is Darwinism
Darwin re-troped

And here is a comment from the “intellectual fraud” discussion that I think brings the issue home:

LA replies:

This is what I’m saying. We think that we drink milk and eat ice cream because there is something inherently tasty and enjoyable about milk and ice cream. But according to Darwinism, properly and consistently understood, that’s not why we drink milk. We drink milk only because an ancestor of ours by a random mutation was able to digest milk, and that mutation was then selected, and so we carry that mutation too. Darwinism entirely dispenses with our subjective state, our desires, our pleasures, our consciousness. It only explains—and it reduces everything in the biological realm to—organs and functions and behaviors that have a reproductive advantage over other organs and functions and behaviors.

In the same way, we are attracted to the opposite sex, and to particular “types” of the opposite sex, because there is something inherently attractive and desirable about the opposite sex that calls forth that response in us. But according to Darwinism, this is a fantasy. The reason we are attracted to certain types is that an ancestor of ours by a random mutation was attracted to that type, and the offspring of that union were more “successful” than offspring of other unions and so the gene that makes people attracted to that type was carried forward to us. According to Darwinism, there is nothing inherently attractive about any type of the opposite sex, and, indeed, there is nothing inherently attractive about the opposite sex itself. The attraction that we subjectively experience only exists in us because of its past demonstrated utility in producing more offspring. By reducing everything to the utility of propagation, Darwinism not only cannot explain the fundamental human realities of intentionality, desire, value, and meaning, it denies their very existence.

- end of initial entry -

Sage McLaughlin writes:

Re your discussion of Darwinism and teleology, I thought of you the other day and chuckled to myself while watching a nature program which I had ordered on DVD (I have a weakness for deep sea documentaries). I was struck by the incessant use of teleological language and implied intentionality by the narrator. One remark struck me as especially egregious: one species of male fish permanently attaches itself to the female, providing her with a lifetime supply of sperm in exchange for a lifetime supply of nutrients. The narrator described this strange arrangement as “a brilliant solution to the problem of finding a mate in the vastness of the deep ocean.” But of course, according to Darwinism, it makes no sense to describe it as either “brilliant” or a “solution,” rather, it would be more appropriate to describe it simply as “an unbelievably fortunate stroke of fortune.” (I was also left wonder why it was so brilliant when no other species of deep sea fish seems to have found it at all necessary, but never mind.)

One other example will suffice. Never having considered the problem of teleology in quite the terms that you have done at VFR, I started listening for this sort of thing during some National Geographic show the other day. I began to notice that the narrator was making incessant references to evolution, far more than were at all necessary to educate the viewer about the animals on display, describing every biological advantage as an “evolutionary strategy.” This is one you’ll notice a lot—“strategy.” It would of course make more sense to use the word “happenstance,” since strategy clearly denotes something intentional, making the phrase “evolutionary strategy” a contradiction in terms, a nonsense phrase. My opinion is that such phrases are the poetic, life-affirming sugar that makes the nihilistic, life-denying medicine of Darwinism go down, even and especially in the minds of those who use them.

It occurs to me that the denial of any teleology to the human person lies at the very heart of much liberal confusion. I have discussed this at more length with other bloggers, but the easiest example I can think of is (of course) sex. Masculinity and femininity, and at a more profane level the male and the female, are in large measure teleological concepts. Women qua women are for motherhood, for example, and it is the denial of such basic truths that leads us into the many absurdities of the modern liberal era.

That’s a different discussion for a different day, but food for thought.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 23, 2008 01:12 PM | Send

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):