So says Stephen L. Talbott in The Organism’s Story (January 2019) at Nature Institute:
Organisms are purposive (“teleological”) beings. Nothing could be more obvious. The fact of the matter is so indisputable that even those who don’t believe it really do believe it. Philosopher of biology Robert Arp speaks for biology as a whole when he writes,
“Thinkers cannot seem to get around [evolutionary biologist Robert] Trivers’ claim that “even the humblest creature, say, a virus, appears organized to do something; it acts as if it is trying to achieve some purpose”, or [political philosopher Larry] Arnhart’s observation that . . . “Reproduction, growth, feeding, healing, courtship, parental care for the young — these and many other activities of organisms are goal-directed”.1”
And yet, despite his acknowledgment that we “cannot get around” this truth, Arp again speaks for almost the entire discipline of biology when he tries, with some delicacy, to take it all back: “with respect to organisms, it is useful to think as if these entities have traits and processes that function in goal-directed ways” (his emphasis). This as if is a long-running cliché, designed to warn us that the organism’s purposive behavior is somehow deceptive — not quite what it seems. The goal-directedness is, in
the conventionalterminology, merely apparent or illusory. Certainlyit must not be seen as having any relation at all to human purposive activity — an odd insistence given how eager so many biologists are to make sure we never forget that the human being is “just another animal”.
Others have commented on this strange reluctance to acknowledge fully the purposiveness that is there for all to see. The philosopher of science, Karl Popper, said that “The fear of using teleological terms reminds me of the Victorian fear of speaking about sex”.2 Popper may have had in mind a famous remark by his friend and twentieth-century British evolutionary theorist, J. B. S. Haldane, who once quipped that “Teleology is like a mistress to a biologist; he cannot live without her but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public”. More.
Funny that normal language should be poorly adapted after all this time.
When people are at great pains to try to alter their language so as to pretend that something isn’t true that really is, what should we call that? Should we cater to it?
Hat tip: Philip Cunningham
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