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Teleology in the strict sense is a branch of philosophy that studies final purposes or Aristotelian "final causes"[1][2] of the universe and evidence of this purpose in the world's set-up — or, to use the current-fad jargon, "design".[3]

Teleology today often insinuates itself into a style of thinking that sees natural forces as being directed toward some sort of end-goal or purpose. Teleological assumptions provide the logical basis for creationism, as evidenced in the argument from design. Teleological approaches usually lead to pseudo-scholarly works of determinism, e.g., historical determinism, biological determinism, etc.

Teleology and evolution[edit]

Teleological thinking is deeply ingrained in culture, so even people who believe evolution is how we got here can slip into it. Beware any of the following in an evolutionary discussion, particularly if you hear them coming out of your own mouth:[4][5]

  • "Highly evolved" — evolution does not have directional heights or an aim in mind. (More forgivable if what is meant is merely "highly complex", "highly specialized", "the end result of many different evolutionary pressures", or "highly changed from its initial state into its current form"; consider using those instead.)
  • "More complex lifeforms" — the genomes reached their present informational content about 600 million years ago. All changes since then have substituted new complexity for old.[note 1] There is no progress or direction. "More complex" in reference to an organ or biological process is usually okay, if the phrase occurs in a purely descriptive manner (e.g., "obviously, the human brain is more complex than that of a fruitfly, so this observation may not have applicability to human medicine").
  • "Purpose" — this word may mean something if you're very careful indeed — giving a functional explanation rather than a historical one (e.g. "the heart's purpose is pumping blood") — but can fail to communicate to your audience that it got this way by shit just happening. Anyone assuming that the "purpose" of evolution was the emergence of that weakling incompetent soul-laden species Homo sapiens may have overlooked the potential of artificial intelligence or the impressive way in which cockroaches have adapted so well to their environments.
  • "The next stage of human evolution" — problems here are the words "the" and "next". When speaking from the context of a species, there almost always is no singular "next"; there are (usually) many, assuming the species does not go completely extinct. Whatever happens to humanity will be shit just happening.[6]
  • Anything that might imply 'guided evolution'.

See also[edit]


  1. The functional complexity sustainable by selection pressure. See George C. Williams'Wikipedia excellent book Adaptation and Natural SelectionWikipedia, which explains this at some length.


  1. Woodfield, Andrew (2010). "1: What is teleology?". Teleology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 1. ISBN 9780521143752. Retrieved 2017-07-15. "In the Oxford English Dictionary 'teleology' is defined as 'the doctrine or study of ends or final causes'. This definition contains a technical term, 'final causes', not much used nowadays. A more familiar word would be 'purposes'. Questions about teleology are, broadly, to do with whether a thing has a purpose or is acting for the sake of a purpose, and, if so, what that purpose is." 
  2. See the Wikipedia article on Final cause.
  3. See the Wikipedia article on design.
  4. Teleology, Talk Origins
  5. Teleological Notions in Biology, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  6. Pace Genesis 3:5: "For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." And Genesis 11:6: "And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do."