Neo-Darwinism and Neo-Aristotelianism : how to talk about natural purpose

Woodford, Peter (2016) Neo-Darwinism and Neo-Aristotelianism : how to talk about natural purpose. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 38(23), pp. 1-23. ISSN (print) 0391-9714


This paper examines the points of disagreement between Neo-Darwinian and recent Neo-Aristotelian discussions of the status of purposive language in biology. I discuss recent Neo-Darwinian ‘‘evolutionary’’ treatments and distinguish three ways to deal with the philosophical status of teleological language of purpose: teleological error theory, methodological teleology, and Darwinian teleological realism. I then show how ‘‘non-evolutionary’’ Neo-Aristotelian approaches in the work of Michael Thompson and Philippa Foot differ from these by offering a view of purposiveness grounded in life-cycle patterns, rather than in long-term evolutionary processes or natural selection. Finally, I argue that the crucial difference between Neo-Darwinian and Neo-Aristotelian approaches regards the question of whether or not reproduction deserves the status of an ‘‘ultimate’’ aim of organisms. I offer reasons to reject the concept of an ‘‘ultimate’’ aim in evolutionary biology and to reject the notion that reproduction serves a purpose. I argue that evolutionary biology is not in the position to determine what the ‘‘ultimate’’ explanation of natural purpose is.

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