Darwinists and Telos

In a recent article in the New York Times, on the frequency of cross-species mating among birds, a Dr. Lovett,a biologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is quoted as saying the following: “much of the entrancing diversity of the avian world, like colors, plumes, songs and bizarre mating displays, ‘has arisen in part because these differences help female birds avoid accidental matings with a male of a different species.'” Given that Cornell has one of the more important departments of ornithology, and given that Dr. Lovett is a director of its evolutionary biology program, we can take his statement as representing a mainstream and widely accepted view of evolution.

The “because” in his statement is troubling, in that it quietly implies what is seldom aciknowledged–a teleological view of evolution, i.e., that traits arise in order to fulfill a prior need or to suit a purpose. That “because” is situated between and links a trait (avian diversity) to a goal (avoiding accidental matings). This gives intelligence to evolution, makes it goal directed, therefore teleological. Whatever kind of evolutionary theory this represents, it is not Darwinism, for the picture Darwin drew was nonteleological, accidental, contingent, and undirected.

One cannot say that a trait arose because of anything, and one cannot say that diversity arose in order to enable females to distinguish between species. If a distinction arose, and if it happens to function in such a way, that is after the fact, not before. A better way of stating the case would thus be, “as various differences arose among bird species as a result of random mutation, genetic drift, and other factors, and as they became fixed through isolation and natural selection, female birds may have come to recognize males of their own species by their particular distinguishing traits. This would have the effect of preventing cross-species matings.”

Yes, that takes more words; but it is also not misleading. It does not imply a teleology behind the evolutionary process.

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