Meeting 1.6 – Teleology and Biology

Reading: Jacques Monod. Chance and Necessity. Chapter 2

Summary:  Lucas Mix presented a summary of Monod’s arguments.

A) Monod begins with the notion that living things are “strange objects,” having invariance (inheritance) and teleonomy (being endowed with a purpose or project) and some concept of objectivity. He presents three theories for understanding this strangeness.

1) AnimismThere is a (non-objective) “universal teleonomic principle” moving in all things, but more intensely in living things.  The universe is projective. Monod attributes this historically to the projection of human teleonomy (in the nervous system) onto non-humans and sees in it a desire for a “covenant” between man and nature. Monod attributes this perspective to Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.]

“But to make dialectical contradiction the ‘fundamental law’ of all movement, all evolution, is nonetheless to try to systematize a subjective interpretation of nature whereby it may be shown to have an ascending, constructive, creative intent, a purpose; in short to make nature decipherable and morally meaningful.  This is ‘animist projection; again, always recognizable whatever its disguises…This interpretation is not only foreign to science but incompatible with it…” p.39

For Monod, it is this desire for subjective/projective/value laden/moral knowledge that led Friedrich Engels to reject natural selection and the second law of thermodynamics, Vladimir Lenin to reject the work of Ernst Mach, and Trofim Lysenko to reject genetics.  It is incompatible with “the postulate of objectivity.”

2) Vitalism – Living things have something non-objective which endows them with teleonomy. Some things are projective.

Metaphysical Vitalism (a la Henri Bergson) positively asserts a vital force available to intuition but not reason.

Scientistic Vitalism (a la Michael Polanyi) denies that physical principles fully explain biology.  [emergent laws]

3) Selective Theory (Evolution by Natural Selection) teleonomy arises from invariance through adaptation.  Nothing is projective.  Monod calls this the only scientific option.

B) Particular events cannot be predicted, though classes of events can.

“We would like to think ourselves necessary, inevitable, ordained from all eternity.  All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately trying to deny its own contingency.” p. 44

“…that nature is objective, that the systematic confronting of logic and experience is the sole source of true knowledge.” p. 167

“objective knowledge is the only authentic source of truth.” p. 169

“The moment one makes objectivity the condition sine qua non of true knowledge, a radical distinction, indispensible to the very search for truth, is established between the domains of ethics and knowledge.  Knowledge is itself is exclusive of all value judgment (all save that of ‘epistemological value’) whereas ethics, in essence nonobjective, is forever banned from the sphere of knowledge….It is in effect this radical distinction, laid down as an axiom, that created science.” p. 174

Value based science won’t work and the only value consistent with science is the value of scientific epistemology, including the postulate of objectivity.



Discussion centered on concepts of teleonomy and the limits of science. Throughout the semester, we have been circling around how we use the words and in this session, we came closest to addressing specifically what is at stake in evolutionary biology.

We touched on the “teleology” of Aristotle, who uses the word “entelechism” (Being at an end) with regard to souls and life.

This has classically been interpreted through the lens of Aquinas who sees it as orientation toward an end state, just as potentiality becomes actuality). This is both projective and end driven.

Alternatively, interpretation in the last 20-30 years has focused on the idea of entelechy as processes that are, in some sense, fulfilled in action.  Consider being in orbit as a continuous state of free fall as opposed to falling down on Earth, where one completes the action by being at rest on the floor.

The second question returned to the issue of whether there are a priori constraints to scientific knowledge and what they might be.

Is there a requirement for observations?  Empirical observations? If so, what “observations” contribute to mathematical knowledge, and can it be considered scientific?  Are there any observations that support claims of teleology in the sense of Aquinas?  In the sense of Aristotle?

What is the difference between science as practice and science as methodology?  Is everything good scientists do “good science”?  How do we arrive at scientific knowledge and what are the constraints?


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