Alan Love: Teleology in Biology?


It’s just a brief interview, I realize. But I left that with no better reason to believe that teleology plays any role whatsoever in evolution, nor how these scientists intend to investigate that question. OTOH, it does look like they managed to get some Templeton Dollars to fund some potentially interesting research, so that’s a good thing.


I know Alan. He was just elected a AAAS Fellow alongside me.

I don’t think the purpose of his work is to argue that biology points to design. Rather he is gathering biologists and philosophers from several “camps” to sort out some of the disagreements here, and think through what biology might tell us, if at all it does tell us something.

Alan is a serious academic, and this isnt ID or anti-evolutionism of any sort.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to suggest it was. Nonetheless, that interview does seem to typify the vagueness of much of what comes from the Templeton. Do you know exactly what those various clusters have in common, and what questions they are hoping to resolve? If there is a camp that believes evolutionary theory would be improved if it incorporated teleology as part of its mechanisms (as opposed to trying to explain how evolution led to agents capable of forming and achieving goals) how does this project intend to either support or refute their position?


You didn’t suggest he was ID, but I want to be clear on that for others.

There is a vagueness there, for sure, as it is a non technical and brief interview.

I’m curious to see what sort of academic publications come out of this. That might clarify a lot more.

The article really is exceedingly vague. I always suspect no good when Templeton is involved. But it sounds as though this is a very loosely associated, or unassociated, bunch of inquiries into (1) how things that some people think look purposeful happen, and (2) maybe also how organisms that do things purposefully form their purposes. I can’t think that these are very useful themes, as compared to just examining complex behaviors of organisms and understanding how they arise. And what multicellularity has to do with teleology in any sense is very far from clear. If he’s managed to get moolah out of Templeton for real research, though, instead of for Templeton’s usual culture-war purposes, that’s a good thing.

1 Like

I think the vagueness is the result of the Templeton Institute wanting to allow people to believe the research provides evidence of a role for God in natural phenomena. I’m just kind of suspicious that way. Which does not mean there will not be interesting and important research to come out of this. I just don’t expect it to help resolve whatever philosophical issues pertaining to “teleology” need to be resolved. For my part, I think we already have a pretty complete explanation for the appearance of teleology in nature.

1 Like

In this short quote from the article, what is the role of “agency” in the sentence? It seems to be a meaningless addition. And what does this research have to do with teleology?


I went through the article, and re-read it mentally substituting “adaptation” or “adaptive” wherever “purpose” or “purposiveness” appeared. In each case, either the substitution makes sense because adaptation was essentially synonymous with purpose in that context, or it does not make sense because somehow a tension was posited that does not exist.

They’re building tools to use rigorous and empirically measurable conceptions of purpose [adaptation] to systematically explore the incredible diversity of biological functions, both in varied present-day environments and as we look at how life has evolved.

Substitution above makes sense, because adaptation here works as a rough synonym.

A lot of biologists feel that the language of purpose [adaptation] steers us away from understanding evolutionary processes

Substitution does not make sense here, because the concept of adaptation is essential to evolutionary processes.

Of course, in language absolute synonyms are rare, as words almost always subtly differ, and here adaptation is not what the article seems to be driving at. I contend that adaptation, however, is the better choice of word, as it implies a process in the present with immediate linkage to advantage and environment, whereas purpose implies a teleology or retrospective assignment of function. In terms of a scientific discussion of how a function came about, cause and effect must be immediate, and in that regard the language of purpose, even if technically defined, only obfuscates.

Stated another way, the first burden of such a project should be to justify where adaptation is inadequate and in deficit of explanatory power, and some meta of purpose is even required. As “purpose” is a word of very broad range, all sorts of mischief is likely as quotations from such a project are taken out of context and presented as full on divine ordinance.


Biologists often use language that imputes agency or goals to living systems and have done this since the time of Aristotle.

It seems that a reasonable explanation for this is that human thought processes, and thus human language, have an innate bias towards assigning agency to events.

Looking at the list of projects, I cannot see any that would appear, even tangentially, related to determining whether “imput[ing] agency or goals to living systems” has any validity. It is therefore hard to see this as doing any more than itself “dancing around the edges or avoiding questions relating to purpose”.


That’s my conclusion as well. We humans project teleology almost reflexively, and this tendency is reflected in our language. Our brains are hardwired to create associations between events, even if they are false associations. Even when I discuss things like how an enzyme functions I will often use language that anthropomorphizes the enzyme. I may picture the enzyme actively hunting for substrate, even though I know that is not how it works. Teleology and anthropomorphizing are two of the biases we humans have to deal with on a regular basis.

My mind immediately goes to classic experiments like the Lederbergs’ plate replica experiment or the Luria and Delbruck fluctuation experiment. If teleology is a major factor, then why were beneficial mutations so rare? Why do deleterious mutations happen? How would you differentiate teleology from happenstance? How many bullseyes are they going to paint around the bullet holes?


Hey, great questions. I’m sure Alan Love has great answers to them, only he didn’t give them in this article because it’s just short puff piece promoting the project. No doubt those great answers will be forthcoming as we learn more about the specifics of the projects.

And if not, well, the money would have been spent by then, anyway.

1 Like

My suspicion is that it was never intended to answer these “great questions”. I suspect that there is an unspoken agreement here whereby Templeton will give money for projects as long as the researchers are willing to pretend that they have something to do with teleology. The researchers throw in the occasional extraneous word about “agency” or the like to keep Templeton happy, but beyond that continue on as they would have otherwise. The researchers get their funding, Templeton gets their press releases, and everybody is happy.


Alan Love at least appears to have some academic curiosity about the subject and can speak intelligently about the hurdles they face. I’m willing to give Love the benefit of the doubt when it comes to intent.

What frustrates me the most is the ID fan clubs that can’t be bothered to read past the title of an article. I came across a thread the other day where a YEC was celebrating the end of evolution because he had found an article entitled “Darwinism is Dead”. He was sure that the theory of evolution was dead. If he had read the article he would have learned how “Darwinism” died when scientists discovered that horizontal genetic transfer has had an impact on evolutionary histories. The YEC went very quiet once this was pointed out.

What would the ID fan club do with a title that mentioned teleology and evolution? I think we all have a pretty good idea. Nuance is usually not a feature of the ID fan club.


And, while I do not suggest that this is intentional, this project could have been tailor made to encourage that misperception.

I think it really is a mistake to interpret JTF as pro ID. That just is not reality.

1 Like

I don’t believe it is pro ID. Rather, I believe its attempts to reconcile science and faith are often misguided and provide convenient fodder for ID propaganda. You can find some examples at the link below, and I predict this current project will be another.

Search Results for “templeton” | Evolution News


This topic was automatically closed 7 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.