Forums: Index > Evolutionary psychology forum > Ev-Psych - Dependent on bad teleological explanations?

Ev-Psych: Dependent on bad teleological explanations? Edit


Robert Cummins
University of California, Davis


"Neo-teleology is the two part thesis that, e.g., (i) we have hearts because of what hearts are for: Hearts are for blood circulation, not the production of a pulse, so hearts are there (animals have them) because their function is to circulate the blood, and (ii) that (i) is explained by natural selection: traits spread through populations because of their functions. This paper attacks this popular doctrine. The presence of a biological trait or structure is not explained by appeal to its function. To suppose otherwise is to trivialize natural selection."

Full paper here: (

This is an interesting paper which i am looking at as part of my own paper on evolutionary psychology, because im concerned about the impact it's conclusions have on the validity of the type of explanations ev-psych commonly offers for the existence of evolved psychological mechanisms. Orgone 03:02, 18 January 2007 (UTC)

Am I off the mark here to suggest that Cummins' description of Neo-teleology sounds a bit like ultimate causation, and his description of functional analysis sounds a bit like proximal causation? Jason Bessey - Jaywin (talk) 16:29, 18 January 2007 (UTC)

No i dont think your off the mark at all:

"Proximate explanations focus on how a phenomenon works (what controls the phenomenon, as it is now seen). How are sonar clicks produced by bats? How is their ear modified to perceive and use these signals? These are proximate questions.

Goal is to understand mechanisms. How does trait work?

Ultimate explanations focus on why a trait exists, rather than one of other plausible alternatives. Why do bats have sonar? Does it help them catch food, avoid predators, or both? These are ultimate questions.

Goal is to understand evolution. Why does trait exist?"


So, if i have read his paper correctly, according to Cummins the proximate "How does trait work?" explanation should be the only one, he would call it the "Functional Analysis". Cummins is making some subtle methodological arguments as he difines his terms, but mainly he is saying that you cannot isolate a certain mechanism and ask "Why is it there?" (its adaptive-selectional history) by appealing to "How does it work?" (its function), or vice versa presumably, he argues that these two properties are sufficiently distinct in the way they operate to make such appeals to neo-teleological (ultimate causal) explanations invalid or misleading. He argues that teleological-type explanations have been removed "root and branch" from every other field of science, true enough, and that natural selection does not provide the "grounding-process" it is presumed to in order to keep them in biological/psychological theory. A thorough functional analysis, he argues, will provide a better understanding of evolution anyway.

His argument relies on a number of examples of how natural selection works on traits, personally i dont think these examples hold up, because i dont think he takes account of inter-species (or 'arms-race') competition, or indeed a very comprehensive range of different possible selectional pressures at all. But ill have to do some more work and read the paper though a few more times before i comment much more. Orgone 14:58, 19 January 2007 (UTC)

Heres a good review of the book in which the paper was published, paragraph 5 onwards for a discussion of Cummins in particular: Orgone 16:32, 19 January 2007 (UTC)

Integrating both approaches?Edit

At the above link, the author stated:

A response to this would be to recognise micro-selection, but to note that functions can be variously described, from the very immediate to the more ultimate, and that the micro-changes on which selection operates provide the resulting traits with proximate functions which improve the operation of the more distal function.

It appears to me that both approaches that Cummins describes could be useful. The "Neo-teleological" approach would seem to be relevant in comparing traits inter-generationally, over long periods of time. For example, over hundreds over even thousands of generations, organisms of a particular species over a particular place and time outcompeted those organisms that didn't evolve wings. From the "Functional Analysis" view, intra-generational concerns seem more relevant. That is, birds who had more efficient wings than winged conspecifics were more successful. Furthermore, one could argue as to how intra-generational differences influence inter-genational differences over time, and vice-versa. Comments? Jason Bessey - Jaywin (talk) 18:12, 19 January 2007 (UTC)

Not quite i think, Cummins argues that our primitive ancestral biological/psychological mechanisms cannot be equated with our modern mechanisms, he points out that the first centralised blood system probably bore no resemblance to our modern hearts, whilst having the same function. Thus the Neo-teleological (adaptive functional) approach strikes itself out over the long term (thousands of generations) because mechanisms were not introduced, nor sustained, because of their functions per se, their functions per se do not explain the mechanisms we see in front of us today. He sees the neo-teleological approach as fundamentally conceptually flawed, and better simply replaced by wholistic functional analysis. (He is not disputing evolutionary explanations, but he argues that to understand somthing in terms of thorough functional analysis is to be better able to understand how it came to be, than to understand it in terms of historic adaptive function) This would seem to impact evolutionary psychology quite a bit. Evolutionary biologists at least have the fossil records to piece together adaptational histories and changes in function, evolutionary psychologists do not. Given the importance of debates about the origins of mechanisms, spandrels and exaptations etc in evolutionary biology, it would seem good to take an approach which makes no simplistic assumptions about the evolutionary process (i.e. even further arguments, if any were needed, against the pan-adaptationism often seen to charachterise the Evolutionary Psychology paradigm championed by Tooby and Cosmides et al). Orgone 17:47, 6 February 2007 (UTC)

Could you put something up on the [[Evolutionary psychology paradigm of John Tooby and Leda Cosmides? Dr Joe Kiff 19:27, 6 February 2007 (UTC)
Its somthing i think should be intergrated in to the main Evolutinary Psychology article, here and at Wikipedia. It would involve taking a lot from an excellent article by Buller, which can be found here: Orgone 21:34, 12 February 2007 (UTC)
I think we should be looking to go into more detail. If we look at the reference list of Tooby and Cosimedes they wrote seminal articles on a number of areas which seemed to found a literature. i think we should set up a page for each area and try to gather the latest thinking together. Im working on getting their reference list together. Once I can get it organised perhaps we could build this together?Dr Joe Kiff 23:01, 13 February 2007 (UTC)
Your right in fact, thats a very good idea. I will be glad to help as much as i can. Unfortunately im working towards my final exams at the moment and ive nearly finished my paper on evolutionary psychology, so my time will become more and more limited over the next four months. Orgone 02:02, 14 February 2007 (UTC)
I created the page Evolutionary_psychology_paradigm_of_John_Tooby_and_Leda_Cosmides, the large quote from Buller was included just as a placeholder intill the article is expanded, i hope thats ok. Orgone 02:37, 14 February 2007 (UTC)
Hi Orgone. That was really useful. Good luck with the exams. This place will still be around for you to come back to when you can!!Dr Joe Kiff 13:32, 14 February 2007 (UTC)

To return to Jason's - Jaywin (talk) point, intergrating both approaches, im playing devil's advocate with Cummins really, because the neo-teleological approach does seem so intuitive and usefull, and his arguments against it seem a bit weak, or just like 'nit-picking'! Surely there does have to be a real sense in which we have a mechanism because of what that mechanism does? So yeah, i agree, both approaches seem usefull, but Cummins would probably shake his head and say we missed the whole point of his argument! What do you think? Orgone 20:26, 15 February 2007 (UTC)


In this article, J. Mundale and W. Bechtel argue that the teleological notion of function is just the kind of notion that evolutionary psychology needs, i haven't had time to read it all yet and i wont for a couple of weeks, but i have to say that from my own reading i agree with their position.Orgone 01:29, 25 April 2007 (UTC)

In this review, is a discussion of: Teleosemantics: New Philosophical Essays, a book edited by Graham Macdonald and David Papineau, charting the issue at stake here. Orgone 18:15, 28 April 2007 (UTC)

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