Teleonomy is the quality of apparent purposefulness and of goal-directedness of structures and functions in living organisms that derive from their evolutionary history, adaptation for reproductive success, or generally, due to the operation of a program.

The term was coined to stand in contrast with teleology, which applies to ends that are planned by an agent which can internally model/imagine various alternative futures, which enables intention, purpose and foresight. A teleonomic process, such as evolution, produces complex products without the benefit of such a guiding foresight. Evolution largely hoards hindsight, as variations unwittingly make "predictions" about structures and functions which could successfully cope with the future, and participate in an audition which culls the also-rans, leaving winners for the next generation. Information accumulates about functions and structures that are successful, exploiting feedback from the environment via the selection of fitter coalitions of structures and functions. These features also have been described by Robert Rosen as an anticipatory system which builds an internal model based on past and possible futures states. Teleonomy is related to programmatic or computational aspects of purpose. Richard Dawkins has also described the properties of "archeo-purpose" and "neo-purpose" in his talk on the "purpose of purpose."[1]


In 1958, C.S. Pittendrigh applied the term to biology:

Biologists for a while were prepared to say a turtle came ashore and laid its eggs. These verbal scruples were intended as a rejection of teleology but were based on the mistaken view that the efficiency of final causes is necessarily implied by the simple description of an end-directed mechanism. … The biologists long-standing confusion would be removed if all end-directed systems were described by some other term, e.g., ‘teleonomic,’ in order to emphasize that recognition and description of end-directedness does not carry a commitment to Aristotelian teleology as an efficient causal principle.[2]

In 1962, Grace A. de Laguna's "The Role of Teleonomy in Evolution"[3] fleshed the applicability of the term to biological history and adaptation.

In 1965 Ernst Mayr cited[4] Pittendrigh and criticized the last few words cited above for not making a “clear distinction between the two teleologies of Aristotle”; evolution involves Aristotle's material causes and formal causes rather than efficient causes. Mayr adopted Pittendrigh’s term, but supplied his own definition:

It would seem useful to rigidly restrict the term teleonomic to systems operating on the basis of a program of coded information. (p.42)

In 1966 George C. Williams approved of the term in the last chapter of his Adaptation and Natural Selection; a critique of some current evolutionary thought.[5] In 1970, Jacques Monod, in Chance and Necessity, an Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology,[6] suggested teleonomy as a key feature that defines life:

Rather than reject this [goal-directedness] idea (as certain biologists have tried to do) it is indispensable to recognise that it is essential to the very definition of living beings. We shall maintain that the latter are distinct from all other structures or systems present in the universe through this characteristic property, which we shall call teleonomy.

[..] It will be readily seen that, in this or that species situated higher or lower on the animal scale, the achievement of the fundamental teleonomic project (i.e., invariant reproduction) calls assorted, more or less elaborate and complex structures and performances into play. The fact must be stressed that concerned here are not only the activities directly bound up with reproduction itself, but all those that contribute-be it very indirectly-to the species' survival and multiplication. For example, in higher mammals the play of the young is an important element of psychic development and social integration. Therefore this activity has teleonomic value, inasmuch as it furthers the cohesion of the group, a condition for its survival and for the expansion of the species.

In 1974 Ernst Mayr illustrated[7] the difference in the statements:

"The Wood Thrush migrates in the fall in order to escape the inclemency of the weather and the food shortages of the northern climates."

"The Wood Thrush migrates in the fall and thereby escapes the inclemency of the weather and the food shortages of the northern climates."

If we replace the words ‘in order to escape’ by ‘and thereby escapes’, we leave the important question unanswered as to why the Wood Thrush migrates. The teleonomic form of the statement implies that the goal-directed migratory activity is governed by a program. By omitting this important message the second sentence is greatly impoverished as far as information content is concerned, without gaining in causal strength.

Subsequently philosophers like Ernest Nagel further analysed[8] the concept of goal-directedness in biology and by 1982, philosopher and historian of science David Hull joked[9] about the use of teleology and teleonomy by biologists:

Haldane [in the 1930s] can be found remarking, ‘Teleology is like a mistress to a biologist: he cannot live without her but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public.’ Today the mistress has become a lawfully wedded wife. Biologists no longer feel obligated to apologize for their use of teleological language; they flaunt it. The only concession which they make to its disreputable past is to rename it ‘teleonomy’.

Although Aristotle believed the world as a whole has a purpose and is teleologically guided, his ancient closing argument could be taken as a statement about teleonomy given modern understanding of adaptation and feedback as "nature's craft":

It is absurd to suppose that purpose is not present because we do not observe an agent deliberating. Craft does not deliberate. If the ship-building craft were in the wood, it would produce the same results by nature. If, therefore, purpose is present in craft, it is present also in nature. The best illustration is a doctor doctoring himself: nature is like that. It is plain that nature is a cause, a cause that operates for a purpose.
Physics, Book II, ch.8, 199b


In teleology, Kant's positions were neglected for many years because in the minds of many scientists they were associated with vitalist views of evolution. Their gradual rehabilitation recently is evident in teleonomy which bears a number of features, such as the description of organisms, that are reminiscent of the Kantian conception of final causes as essentially recursive in nature. The gist of Kant's position is that even though we cannot know whether there are final causes in nature, we are constrained by the peculiar nature of the human understanding to view organisms teleologically. Thus the Kantian view sees teleology as a necessary principle for the study of organisms, but only as a regulative principle, and with no ontological implications.

Current statusEdit

Teleonomy is closely related to concepts of emergence, complexity theory[10] and self-organizing systems.[11] It has extended beneath biology to be applied in the context of chemistry.[12][13] Some philosophers of biology resist the term and still employ "teleology" when analyzing biological function[14] and the language used to describe it.[15] while others endorse it.[16] The debate also intersects with theoretical physics and the foundations of mathematical modeling, if space-time evolves concurrently with information-cognition, then reflexive self-processing (Wheeler's It from Bit) may allow life the ability to promote the environmental conditions for its survival. Whether through coincidence via multiversal self-selection (as discussed in Susskind's Landscape) or through cybernetic systems, both "teleology" and "teleonomy" lack the precision to describe the physical mechanisms involved and do not address the potential role of hyperincursion in anticipatory computing. The use of "telic feedback" has been suggested by theorist Christopher Michael Langan in a general sense, thus supporting cybernetic explanations for evolutionary systems with endogenous functors:

Essentially, telic recursion allows meaningful higher-order expressions generated by telors to function as SCSPL generative grammar (rules of production) within a conspansive manifold which "automatically" executes these rules by virtue of its structure (see the PCID paper regarding extended superposition, a conspansive correlate of hology which places the past and future in immediate contact).

Research on unified systems of computational manifolds have also been used to better understand the phenomena of teleonomy:

Fundamental properties of the world in which all life evolved, such as space, time, force, energy and audio frequencies, are modeled in physics and engineering with differentiable manifolds. A central question of neurophysiology is how information about these quantities is encoded and processed. While the forces of evolution are complex and often contradictory, the argument can be made that if all other factors are equal, an organism with a more accurate mental representation of the world has a better chance of survival. This implies that the representation in the central nervous system (CNS) of a physical phenomenon should have the same intrinsic mathematical structure as the phenomenon itself. The philosophical principal, put forth by Monad (1971) and others, that under certain conditions, biological evolution will form designs that are in accordance with the laws of nature is referred to as teleonomy.

See alsoEdit


  2. Pittendrigh, C. S. "Adaptation, natural selection, and behavior," in Behavior and Evolution, ed. A. Roe and George Gaylord Simpson, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958, 390-416; p. 394.
  3. de Laguna, Grace A. The Role of Teleonomy in Evolution. Philosophy of Science, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Apr., 1962), pp. 117-131
  4. Mayr, E. "Cause and effect in biology". In D. Lerner (Ed.), Cause and effect. New York: Free Press, 1965. pp.33-50.
  5. Williams, G.C. Adaptation and natural selection; a critique of some current evolutionary thought, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1966.
  6. Monod, Jacques, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1971, (ISBN 0-394-46615-2)
  7. Mayr, E. “Teleological and Teleonomic, a New Analysis”, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 14 (1974).
  8. Nagel, E.. "Teleology Revisited: Goal-Directed Processes in Biology" Journal of Philosophy 74: 261-301 (1977). Reprinted in Allen, Bekoff & Lauder, 1998.
  9. Hull, D.L., “Philosophy and Biology”, in G. Fløistad, ed., Contemporary Philosophy, A New Survey, vol. 2: Philosophy of Science, pp. 280-316 Nijhoff, 1982.
  10. Christensen, W.D. 1996. A complex systems theory of teleology (PDF). Biology and Philosophy, 11: pp. 301-320.
  11. Lifson S. Chemical selection, diversity, teleonomy and the second law of thermodynamics. Reflections on Eigen's theory of self-organization of matter. Biophys Chem. 1987 May 9;26(2-3):303-11.
  12. Pross, Addy, On the Chemical Nature and Origin of Teleonomy, Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres. Vol 35. 4, August, 2005
  13. ibid. On the Chemical Nature of Purpose (Teleonomy), Journal of 18th Conference on Physical Organic Chemistry
  14. Neander, K. "The Teleological Notion of ‘Function’." Australasian Journal of Philosophy 69(4): 454-468. 1991.
  15. Nissen, Lowell, Teleological Language in the Life Sciences, Rowman & Littlefield, 1997 (ISBN 0-8476-8694-9)
  16. Kober, G. "Teleology's New Clothes: Teleonomy and the Notion of Program", International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology (Feb 14, 2005)
  17. A Unified System of Computational Manifolds, Douglas S. Greer

Further readingEdit

  • Allen, C., M. Bekoff, G. Lauder, eds., Nature’s Purposes: Analyses Of Function and Design in Biology. MIT Press, 1998. (ISBN 0-2625-1097-9)
  • Mayr, E., What Makes Biology Unique?: Considerations on the Autonomy of a Scientific Discipline, Cambridge University Press, 2004. (ISBN 0-5218-4114-3).
  • Ruse, M. Darwin and Design, Harvard University Press; 2004. (ISBN 0-6740-1631-9)

External linksEdit

es:Teleonomía fr:Téléonomie no:Teleonomi ru:Телеономия

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