‘Final-cause thinking’: Does biology and evolution need to be ‘purposeful’?

Editorial cartoon depicting Charles Darwin as an ape x

In the world of evolutionary biology, in particular, there is still a huge amount of final-cause thinking, despite the fact that Darwin is often said to have done away with teleology [explaining phenomena by their purposes]. Why does the stegosaurus have diamond-like plates running down its back? In order to control body temperature, cooling in the heat and catching sun in the cold (no small issue for a cold-blooded organism). The plates exist (or rather used to exist) in order to — for the purpose of — controlling the temperature.

Charles Darwin added the missing piece. His mechanism of natural selection didn’t just introduce change into the biological picture. It introduced change of a particular kind, namely natural processes that produce features that look design-like. In the Darwinian account, if natural features, such as the stegosaurus’s plates, weren’t design-like, they wouldn’t help their possessors survive and so they would lose out in the “struggle for existence.”

[H]ere we have the reason why final-cause talk is permissible and necessary. Thanks to the processes of evolution, organisms appear design-like, even though they are ultimately the result of random variations plus natural selection. In order to make sense of this fact, we often think and talk in terms of ends or purposes, although these ends or purposes don’t actually exist in the real world.

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this blog/article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion, and analysis. Read full, original post: Do We Need Purposes in Biology

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