Everyone uses teleological language – the language of purpose – even when it doesn’t seem to make rational sense. We ascribe motives to everyday processes, so the car won’t start because I don’t want to go to the dentist, your little brother fell down the hole because he was bad yesterday, and the ball keeps rolling away because the dog wants to play with it. We also tend to ascribe purpose to biological processes, so flowers grow because we enjoy them, and the DNA code came into existence in order that life can develop on earth – you might check yourself after saying or thinking such things, but we all think them. A recently study* showed that scientists are naturally ‘promiscuously teleological’, but the current thinking in science is that we shouldn’t use teleological language. The world is the way it is by chance and not by design.
Last month, biologist Harvey McMahon spoke at the Faraday Institute on ‘Teleology and Biology: Friends, Foes, Mutually Exclusive or Complementary?’ McMahon and the members of his research group investigate the curvature of membranes, looking at how the physical shape of cells and their membrane bound ‘organelles’ is suited to function. In his seminar he argued, in a humorous but direct way, that biological language is not pure: it uses language from many fields in the attempt to understand itself. Stripping teleology from our language dehumanises biology, and science suffers for it. Continue reading