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Paul Jerome Croce
A Future-Oriented Teleology: Evolutionary Biology, Jamesian Philosophical Psychology, and Sufficient Design


There is a widespread assumption that biological evolution operates without any teleological purpose. The history of modern science in its departure from natural theology confirms this impression, as do the methods and practices of biology which avoid arguments over essential or prior purposes in the operations of species adaptations. The contemporary controversies over intelligent design further reinforce this view because the work of professional biologists contrasts with the intricate design arguments of this philosophy in its claims to scientific legitimacy. However, there are ways in which evolutionary thinking, starting with the work of Charles Darwin himself, actually contains some elements of teleology. Darwinism recognizes a role for purpose within the natural facts; there is a purpose to each trait adapted to its environment through struggles for survival and reproduction. The processes of adaptation generate selection of countless small functionally useful variations, as individuals and species change in response to immediate practical needs; there is no perfected endpoint goal, but adaptive evolutionary change toward more organization, greater complexity, and better fit to the environment. This is a teleology, not of the perfected goal, but of the better adapted. Darwinian teleology is law bound rather than miraculous; and the purposes achieved are functional and continually unforeseeable, rather than serving as the fulfillment of a prior plan.

These ideas, especially as elaborated by the philosopher and psychologist William James, provide alternative ways of addressing the polarized conflict in evolutionary biology and the science-and-religion debate in general. James objected to the interpretations of Darwinism that demanded the authority of science as the only positive knowledge, just as he objected to the adherents of traditional religion and idealism who turned away from the rich new insights emerging from naturalistic inquiry. He also applied Darwinian science to his psychology, philosophy, and religious thought, and as he did, he noted that evolutionary approaches suggest a teleology that promotes the “function of continuing thought in a certain direction.” For example, he noted that his psychological research could be understood in both evolutionary and teleological terms, when he observed that the mind serves as an evolutionary agent in its ability to select relevant facts, make intelligent choices, and shape direction; the selective, purposeful mind is adaptive. In this spirit, Michael Polanyi noted that James proposed a “looser view of teleology” with “intelligible directional tendencies … operative in the world without our having to suppose that they determine all things.” This approach suggests that living nature has purpose, but its designs are not grand, ancient, or ideal; instead they are sufficient to each individual and each generation, and they have resulted in very gradual evolutionary development. The future orientation of this teleology may also provide sufficient design for many human purposes, including a platform for building bridges between science and religion, and a way to address some religious and idealistic concerns for a world of purpose.

Paul Jerome Croce is Professor and Chair of American Studies at Stetson University. He has been teaching at Stetson since 1988 and has held this position since 1995. His courses include American Cultural Traditions, Service Learning, Darwinism and the Divine, War and Peace in American Culture, and Nature and the American Marketplace.

Croce developed his interest in science and religion as a student when he began to learn about ways that secularism and science were challenging religious beliefs and ideal hopes. William James’s “Will to Believe” (1895) seemed a wise way to cope with these challenges. Good theory; but with his historical interests and 1987 Brown University PhD in American Studies with concentrations in intellectual history, history of science, history of religion, and philosophy of religion, he wanted to understand where such theory came from in James’s life and contexts. The major fruit of these inquiries has been two books: Science and Religion in the Era of William James, Volume One: Eclipse of Certainty (University of North Carolina Press, 1995) and Volume Two: Conciliating Truth and Change (UNC Press, under contract). They chronicle the story of James’s development and the emergence of his awareness of the interaction of body and mind, of object and subject, of science and religion. Portions of his writings have appeared in The New England Quarterly, Intellectual History Newsletter, American National Biography, Zeitschrift für Neuere Theologiegeschichte/Journal for the History of Modern Theology, The Religions of the United States in Practice, History of Psychology, Transactions of the Charles Peirce Society, and The Global Spiral. He has been chair of the Forum for the History of Human Science and is the rising president of the William James Society.


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