Metaphysics Finals
Atheist Religions

Teleological Games

Polarbears_1Why are polar bears white? Although we can offer logical explanations to this question – such as ‘it provides a selective advantage when hunting seals’ – to do so is to play a teleological game of some kind. Teleology refers to the study of design and purpose in nature (or elsewhere). Before Darwin, teleology was the dominant explanatory mechanism in biology, explaining features in terms of why it was the best solution. Since Darwin, teleology has remained the dominant explanatory mechanism. All that has changed is the metaphysical justifications that are attached to these explanations.


This is a post about the philosophy of evolution. It expands upon a point raised in passing in Quid Pro Quo, which should be considered a pre-requisite for understanding this post. This in turn builds upon Popper’s Milestone, which is also required reading for full appreciation of the arguments being discussed here.


I feel it is necessary to provide some disclaimers before beginning. To anyone who objects to this discussion on the grounds that evolution is somehow in conflict with religious faith, I quote Theodosius Dobzhansky (an Orthodox Christian) who wrote in Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution:

Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts. ...the blunder leads to blasphemy: the Creator is accused of systematic deceitfulness.

And to anyone who mistakenly assumes that my criticisms in this post are meant to discredit evolution, I quote R.C. Lewontin from The Doctrine of DNA: Biology as Ideology:

No scientist doubts that the organisms on earth today have evolved over billions of years from organisms that were very unlike them and that nearly all types of organisms have long since gone extinct. Moreover, we know this to be a natural process resulting from the differential survivorship of different forms. In this sense, we all accept Darwinism as true.

But, much like R.C. Lewontin, I contend that accepting that there is something we can call the evolutionary process does not permit ideology (and hence metaphysics) to be considered a legitimate part of science, unless we choose not to enforce Popper’s milestone in which case even Intelligent Design cannot be excluded from science – a solution I hope to avoid.

Why is the Polar Bear White?

What is wrong with saying ‘the polar bear is white because it confers a selective advantage when they are hunting seals.’ The answer to this is simple: how would we test this claim? And if we cannot test it, we certainly cannot falsify its claim. As such, that places this particular statement in metaphysics and not in science.

It may help to clarify this situation if we consider some counter claims along similar lines. Consider, for instance, the scenario that at some point in the past the polar bear was hunted by a predator. In this scenario, we can claim the polar bear is white because of a selective advantage that helped them avoid predators. Also, consider the scenario that polar bear ancestors became white purely by chance, and then discovered that being white allowed them to hunt seals. The hunting of seals has become an effect when previously it was suggested as a cause!

Science does not advance by fabricating logical explanations and then accepting them because they sound reasonable – science expressly presumes that when we make a statement we can test and (to some extent) verify that claim experimentally. Claims that cannot be tested belong in metaphysics no matter how logical they sound.

Games of Teleology

Anyone can play a teleological game – and it’s fun to do so! Simply look at some animal and devise an explanation for its features or behaviour in terms of some explanatory scenario. Those that do not wish to use evolution may do so by playing a teleological game with God as the explanatory factor; those that would rather play sans Deus might prefer to use ‘selective advantages’ or something similar. The game will play quite similarly either way.

ConchConsider this example from the early 19th century:

An ovate or oblong form is consequently the very best that could be adopted; and, moreover, the points with which it is covered and adorned, are evidently designed to protect the shell from external injury… At the same time a beautiful variety of tints evince that minute attention to the finishing and decorating of his works which the Deity so continually displays.

    - The Conchologists Companion, Mary Roberts 1834 AD

Mary plays her teleological game with God, claiming that animals display the best form that could be adopted because of the care and attention of God.

LemonCompare this with an example from the late 20th century:

Many citrus trees that are natives of arid regions have sour fruit to discourage animals from eating it. The flesh of a lemon is there for three main reasons: to add weight so it will roll a long way after it falls from the tree, to dissuade foraging animals from eating the seeds before they can develop, and to supply water and nutrients as the flesh rots around the germinating seeds. The main aim of any seed is to propagate the species, not to feed the local animals.

    - Letter to ‘New Scientist’, Joanna Burgess, April 1999 AD

Joanna plays her teleological game with the gene-centric view. She devises an explanation for sour fruit on the assumption that “the main aim of any seed is to propagate the species”. But this is an odd claim! Because what does it mean to suggest that a seed has ‘a main aim’? She is proceeding from the assumption that the meaning or purpose of life is to propagate itself. But this is surely metaphysics, for any discussion of ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ must necessarily fall within this domain. This is why Einstein stated:

What is the meaning of human life, or of organic life altogether? To answer this question at all implies a religion.

(I would say it implies metaphysics, but we have already seen the argument that metaphysics is the domain of religion, not of science).

It is certainly logical to suggest that fruits in arid regions are sour because it was a selective advantage to discourage animals to eat them, thus keeping their water to themselves. Elsewhere, where water is more common, having tasty fruit that animals will eat thus spreading seeds over a wider area can be seen as a selective advantage. But does this really make sense? Are we suggesting that once upon a time all the fruits were tasty, but the desert fruits adapted to being sour? What if once upon a time all the fruits were sour, but the temperate fruits adapted to be tasty to gain the opposite advantage? There are so many possible stories we can tell, and few if any of them are testable.

The Game of Evolution

The problem occurs in part because of the assumption that evolution is purely a game of agon: species compete with each other for resources and the “fittest” (i.e. the best adapted to its environment) survives. But even if this assumption were true, the lineage of any given species spreads over millions (even billions) of years and we have only the utterly incomplete fossil record to provide clues as to what was a selective advantage at any given time. We cannot know which traits provided specific selective advantages, because we cannot see through time, and nothing in our evolutionary theories allows for us to predict that all observable traits provided an advantage at all times, or indeed at any given time.

GouldStephen J. Gould raised the quite legitimate point that we cannot know which traits of an organism are the results of selective advantages, and which are simply artefacts of the evolutionary process. His research had focussed on extinction by lottery, and as such it was clear to him that chance played as big a role in the history of life as competition – or to put it another way, that evolution was a game of alea as well as a game of agon. Furthermore, R.C. Lewontin noted that the usual process in biology of looking for the cause of an effect – presuming that there is such a thing as a major cause, and that all other factors can effectively be ignored – was a terribly naïve way of looking at biological systems which contain many intricately interrelated elements, and do not lend themselves to analysis through an overly simplistic model of causation.

Popper retracted his claim that Darwinism a metaphysical research program and not a testable scientific theory because he was shown evidence of biologists using optimization analysis to make predictions about changes in the statistical distributions of characteristics in real animal populations. But while the capacity to make testable assertions about future populations constitutes a scientific validation of Darwin’s theory, it categorically does not mean that teleological games played using Darwin’s theory (or something similar) are any more scientifically valid than those same games played with God. The validation of the theoretical framework is an entirely separate issue from the widespread practice of making metaphysical statements and presenting them as if they were science.

We have several sources of data from which to form scientific theories about the past. The fossil record provides evidence spanning billions of years, although it is incomplete, and its interpretation can be highly subjective (as clearly indicated by the case of the Burgess Shale). The geological record is more complete, but also more general. The genetic transcript provides some information, especially about events less than a million years ago (such as historical human migrations), but does not allow us to see very far. Radiocarbon dating is another source of data, but only about the ages of things. It is likely we will acquire some new techniques over time, but it is highly probable that we will always be interpreting the past with a mere sliver of data, at least compared with the wealth of options we have for the scientific investigation of other areas.

In the sense of identifying a single causal factor, we may never be able to say with any scientific confidence “why the polar bear is white”, although we may conjecture to our heart’s content! We are free to play our teleological games however we wish, but we should not present them as if they were science. When we make statements which lack a framework whereby they might be tested and falsified, we are blurring the boundaries between metaphysics and science. It is the confusion of these boundaries that opens the door to metaphysical models such as Intelligent Design, and anyone who wishes to keep ID out of science should therefore strive to ensure that their own scientific writing is free of metaphysical elements such as teleological games.


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Could I play by your rules here (for once!)and point out a possible "language game", here paraphrasing Dawkins' disclaimer on language in at least one of his books? Namely that causal language used by proponents of evolution may be a shorthand for "confers a selection advantage towards..." or even "could confer a selection advantage towards..."? I accept that the former doesn't entirely salvage the situation, though I think the latter does. Of course, as the house skeptic, I should also point out that the latter fits my own particular biases, which may be why I prefer it.

You have numerous errors. I will address only a few.

--- "Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not."

Of course it does. About 60% of Americans believe every word of the Bible is literally true. The Bible conflicts with evolution. Accordingly, evolutionary doctrine conflicts with religious faith for at least 60% of Americans. Please don't whitewash this or try to play word games or commit the logical fallacy of using a small, non-representative part (Americans who don't believe the Bible is literally true are a small, non-representative part) as a representation of the whole.

The rest of your errors derive largely from a failure to understand evolution. The theory of evolution has never suggested that any particular feature of any particular species can be linked to one specific environmental advantage or disadvantage. Teleology says that animals and plants were *designed* to fit their roles. Evolution suggests that when random changes occur to species, if those changes help the species survive they are more likely to be passed on.

You are thus misdescribing both teleology and evolution. If you describe them correctly, your supposed concordance between them disappears.

There are many evolutionary situations where we can, in fact, say authoritatively that a particular mutation has helped an organism prosper. If we place some normal bacteria and some high-temperature mutated bacteria versions of the same bacteria in a dish, and raise the temperature and wait a week, we will find that the normal bacteria have died out and the high-temperature bacteria have exclusively survived. The experiment is completely repeatable. It's testable, and provable.

"You have numerous errors. I will address only a few."

Why point out that he has numerous errors if you're only going to point out a few, Anon? Surely he (and the rest of us) would rather know all the errors, in the hope of refutation or correction. Now you're just teasing :D

"The experiment is completely repeatable. It's testable, and provable." ... and misses the point of this post ... sorry, not enough time to explain it to you ;-)


I agree that careless use of language is an issue. I have no problem with "could confer a selective advantage", only with people rushing directly to a teleological conclusion without showing the workings! :)


I don't think I've misunderstood evolution, nor the philosophical implications of religion, but thanks for letting me know that you do!

Tying this back to game design (someone has to) this reminds me of Juul's distinction between progressive and emergent games, where in the prior case play is structured by a sequence of goals (a teleology) and in the latter its structure is produced by the intereaction of base rules (an ontology). Metaphysics tries to be an ontology but ends up getting overtaken by teleology, Mayan shamanism, Christianity, Islam, even some forms of Judaism hold a teleology for the world in the form of some final goal. Eastern religions hold such teleologies in more personal form, in achieving enlightenment or nirvana. I don't know about you, but my hunch is the only person to achieve Nirvana was Kurt Cobain, and he had to overdose to get there.

Likewise, game designers fall into the trap of prescribing teleological motives to players who might not nessecarily want those motives. Ontology should come first.

Now, I'm going to talk a bit about memes (because I have to). Memes are interesting becaues they operate along the same principles of self-replication that biological systems depend on in evolutionary theory, but memes are designed more often than they randomly mutate. Intuitive ideas are straddling the line here, because the design could be said to be subconscious but the process is quite emergent. Either way, many memes at large in the world are so prevalent because of design. Advertising is a key example, but also the most popular specimens of culture across media. For instance, saying "The Sims grossed 1.2 billion as a franchise because it appeals to market X in manner Y, and Market A in manner B..." and so on is perfectly acceptable, because these sub-hypotheses can be tested through market research.

Patrick: "Ontology should come first."

I'm not sure if you no HOW RIGHT you are on this one!

yet wrt "meme": I guess somebody explained somewhere what would happen to "memes" if there weren't any humans to talk about them ...?
Take the idea/meme of the "meme as electromagnetic pattern". Is there an experiment that shows how sees "electromagnetic patterns" are transmitted between (human) brains? Does the "meme" entail or enable "telepathy"? I'm just curious, honestly ;-)

If a tree falls in the forest, and there's nobody there, does anybody care?
If there were no humans to transmit the memes, does it matter what happens to them?
And the idea of the meme as electromagnetic pattern is, I hold, an incomplete description because the science it is based on is incomplete - namely the working of the brain and the nature of mind.

Must run - Guitar Hero just acquired!
"Are you ready for the commitment, to get up at the crack of noon, and do 7 or 8 rock squats, at a a row!" - J.B.

Chris - sorry for the divergent posts :D


Chris made a good point that since the science of the brain is incomplete then memetics is still metaphyiscs.


Memes are "transmitted" via imitation, in other words, pattern recognition. This pattern recognition can occur across a variety of media, letters to gestures to film to simply doing something in a specific way. In all these cases there is a langauge, a model, of the percieved pattern, which can then promulgate and integrate with other patterns in the brain, or be destroyed. In this broad sense, the evolution of language and the evolution of thought are concurrent if not congruent.

Language's evolved in fuzzy forms first: sensory perceptions, gestures, the logographic, pictographic and alphabetical written langauges - all depend on fuzzy constraints. More rigorous languages, mathematics and from that science, evolved later, to dramatic effect. Its hard to build a rigorous definition and resulting science of memes because memes predate the evolution of science.

An interesting feature of memes is how they self-organize into complex structures, and whats more interesting than that is how some of these structures, when well integrated with other structures, frame discrete intuitive cognition just as they often form restrictive super-structures, fueling the mind of an ardent national socialist or devout Catholic priest. One application of intuitive process is to model other people's minds using social data and memories in near real-time, and when this happens a sense of telepathy can be felt. So to answer you question, yes memes can allow for a sort of "telepathy", but as with science the fuzzy imitative storm of mutations came before the pristine moments of clarity.

"since the science of the brain is incomplete then memetics is still metaphyiscs"

To take a slight, but I consider only slight, parody of this position: "Since the science of medicine is incomplete then drug research is metaphysics."

Insofar as either activity leads to predictions and falsifiable hypotheses, each one is (in my view) science. Insofar as either leads to untestable hypotheses, each one is metaphysics. It may be that memetics is part-science, part-metaphysics. Ditto for drug research.

Patrick, i guess i start to get a grasp on your usage of the "meme" metaphor.

One more thing: Does a "meme" in your view always take the form of a *statement* (or even some form of "ultimate premise" meant to support *ontological* claims) or can a *question* be a model (or pattern) for a "meme", too?

Peter: do you have an example of a falsifiable hypothesis that includes the notion of a meme? (Rather than a falsifiable hypothesis that may have been inspired by memetics).

I don't think this parallel with drug research is a fair comparison. It is not the fact of the incompleteness of the science of consciousness that renders 'memes' as metaphysics, but that the incompleteness of this field's knowledge does not allow us to define a testable/falsifiable entity that we can call a 'meme'.

At least, that's how I see it.

Best wishes!


If you buy Feyerabend's anti-philosophy than you don't need falsifiable hypotheses in order for memetics to be useful, not only in game design but marketing, politics, economics, social psych, writing, even everyday interactions like heated religious debates.


I'd say if you can verse it, it is a meme, because it can be thus imitated. I'm not writing a book just yet, so don't quote me on that, but that fuzzy guideline is what I observe. Its like the Sapir-Worph hypothesis, but in a form beyond the strong and weak.

"Why is there something instead of nothing?" for instance, is one hell of a meme.

Patrick: I'm not saying metaphysics isn't useful - it can be tremendously valuable - it's just not testable. :D


You might find this post on the nature of evolution interesting:

And here is another post in the same vein:

In keeping with the roots of this post (teleology/evolution):

Life is fundamentally opportunistic.

That's my meme, and I'm sticking to it.

No ecological niche will remain empty as long as it has an available source of reduceable energy and will accept a reduced form of energy. No matter how apparently hostile a niche may appear, it is not a matter of whether or not it will be occupied, but how long it will take to become occupied. Once occupied, said niche will remain occupied by the same organism, until the environmental conditions of the niche change, or another organism displaces the first by occupying that niche more efficiently.

The polar bear either was white and that turned out to be an advantage, or came in a profusion of colors of which white turned out to be the most successful. In either case, there was a niche, and the polar bear filled it. Ipso facto, 'life is fundamentally opportunistic' is a teleologically satisfactory observation that precedes a theory of evolution.

It is also my considered opinion that if polar bears were black, they would absorb so much solar heat during the continuous arctic summer daylight that they would cook where they sat.

Paul: of course, there is almost no limit to the number of teleological formulas that one can concoct - the bigger question is whether such teleology belongs in science. Evolution was supposed to banish it from the pages of the science textbooks: it failed. Instead, we just have a whole new bunch of them to choose from!

I agree with you that life is fundamentally opportunistic, although I wouldn't elevate it to the status of a teleological principle personally. But the idea that the key story of the evolution of life is direct competition is misleading; as you intimate here, many species have found that the dominant strategy is to find a niche no-one else is using and make it their own.

Not to mention this would be a far better principle to teach in respect of the marketplace than the dogma of competition as it is usually presented! :)

Thanks for sharing your views!

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