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Neo-Darwinists and Neo-Aristotelians: how to talk about natural purpose

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Woodford, P 


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.



teleology, neo-Darwinism, neo-Aristotelianism, purpose of reproduction, ultimate causation

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History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences

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