The Metaphysics of ‘Natural Goodness’, Pt. III

This is part of a series where we outline a way that we might base some sort of Aristotelean philosophy on modern science, especially biology. In this post, we look at modern biology a la “Selfish Gene” for some conception of the “Summum Bonum” or “Supreme Good”.

Modern views on life’s “top-level function”.

Modern biology has an ambiguous relationship with teleology. One famous quip (whose source I cannot recall) says that “evolutionary biology believes in teleology during the week but not on Sundays.” I take this to mean that teleology is necessary in everyday biological work, but in biological theoryteleology seems out of place. Why is this so? For these reasons:

  1. Biology supervenes on physics.
  2. Physics lacks teleology.
  3. Darwinian theory is utterly a-teleological.

In the following, I hope to show that even though points 1) and 2) are correct, point 3) does not follow.1Even if we did assume all three points, biologists are forced to admit that something like “purpose” is part of their field. The very concept of “adaptation” implies being adapted for some sort of purpose, and this sense of purpose clearly supervenes on physics. Julian Huxley and Niko Tinbergen both listed “function” as one of the major questions answerable by evolutionary science, in addition to phylogenetic, ontogenetic, and mechanistic questions. (Hladaky andHavlíček1998) But when theoretical biologists thematize the teleology inherent (as I believe) in their field of study, they do so in a way that betrays how weird Darwinian teleology truly is. Take for example the opening of “The Selfish Gene”:

This book should be read almost as though it were science fiction. It is designed to appeal to the imagination. But it is not science fiction: it is science. Cliche or not, ‘stranger than fiction’ expresses exactly how I feel about the truth. We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment. Though I have known it for years, I never seem to get fully used to it. One of my hopes is that I may have some success in astonishing others. (Dawkins pp. vii)

Notice how in this statement, he states what natural living thingsqualiving are for, according to evolutionary theory. Later on Dawkins characterizes his ‘Selfish Gene’ thesisagainst a background of competing evolutionary teleologies:

The trouble with these [other]books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong. They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works. They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene).(Dawkins pp. 2)

The “Selfish Gene” theory is a teleological theory that prescribes what we should expect to find in the structure and behavior of living creatures:

If we were told that a man had lived a long and prosperous life in the world of Chicago gangsters, we would be entitled to make some guesses as to the sort of man he was. We might expect that he would have qualities such as toughness, a quick trigger finger, and the ability to attract loyal friends. These would not be infallible deductions, but you can make some inferences about a man’s character if you know something about the conditions in which he has survived and prospered. The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. ‘Special’ and ‘limited’ are important words in the last sentence. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense. (Dawkins pp. 2)

So we can clearly see that the entire Selfish Gene theory is about natural teleology. Clearly we have come a long way from Athens to Oxford, butteleologicalconcepts arestill just as essential for Darwin as they are for Aristotle.

Conclusion: Ethics As Physics

Now we are in a position to ask some rather weird questions about morality. For example, what is the purpose of morality? There are two trends to be noticed in most modern authors: one is that morality is an inherent good; I am now thinking of Kant’s statement ‘There is nothing in heaven or earth that is good in itself except a good will.’ (Citation?)Others think that morality is some instrumental good; most consequentialism or contractualism would say that moral behavior serves to maximize the payoff of the felicific calculus. In the light of our previous discussion, we are not in a position to develop a new approach to this, that of biology. We shall strive to place ourselves in the epistemic position of some alien anthropologists who step off their flying saucer and observe various behaviors of the species Homo sapiens. How would they explain moral behavior within the limits of science alone? This is not an idle question; every day biologists in the field are faced with unexplained behaviors of a wide variety of organisms. An instructive example is a recent decade-long effort to explain the reproductive behavior of a certain slime-mold. This slime mold is a ‘colonial’ organism; meaning that while it does exhibit extensive cooperation, it is made up of separate cells with their own genotypes.


Among the many implications of this view are the following:

Morality is for a purpose, this purpose is the purpose for which we are alive, it is natural, morality is not a “by product” of the structure of our brains which evolved for some other purpose:

It may be objected that if some aspects of our capacity to reason conferred an evolutionary advantage, while other aspects were disadvantageous in that respect (perhaps because they lead us to act more altruistically that we would otherwise have done), then those other aspects would have been selected against and would have disappeared. … It appears to be the case, however, that we have retained capacities to reason that do not confer any evolutionary advantage and may even be disadvantageous. How can that be? A plausible explanation of the existence of these capacities is that the ability to reason comes as a package that could not be economically divided by evolutionary pressures. Either we have a capacity to reason that includes the capacity to do advance phyics and mathematics and grasp objective moral truths, or we would have a much more limited capacity to reason that lacks not only these abilities but other that confer an overriding evolutionary advantage. If reason is a unity of this kind, having the package would have been more conducive to survival than not having it. (de Lazari and Singer pp. 17)







Aristotle, & McKeon, R. (1941). The basic works of Aristotle.NY:Random House.

Boulter, Stephen. Metaphysics from a biological point of view. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Dawkins, Richard. Theselfish gene. Oxford Univ Press, 2016.

De Cruz, Helen. Innate ideas as a naturalistic source of of mathematical knowledge; towards a Darwinian approach to mathematics. (PhD. dissertation) Brussel: Vrije Universiteit Brussel, 2007

De Lazari-Radek, Singer, P. “The objectivity of ethics and the unity of practical reason.” Ethicsvol. 123, no. 1 (October 2012), pp. 9-21.

Feser, Edward. “From Aristotle to John Searle and Back Again: Formal Causes, Teleology, and Computation in Nature.” Nova et vetera, vol. 14, no. 2, 2016, pp. 459–494., doi:10.1353/nov.2016.0039.

Haidt, Jonathan. Therighteousmind:whygoodpeoplearedivided by politics and religion.New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.

Hladky,V., Havlíček, J. “Was Tinbergen an Aristotelean? Comparison Of Tinbergen’s Four Whys And Aristotle’s Four Causes” Human Ethology Bulletinvol. 28, no 4, 2013: pp. 3-11

Hull, David L. and Michael Ruse, (eds.), 1998, The Philosophy of Biology, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lowe, Ernest Jonathan. The possibility of metaphysics: substance, identity, and time. Clarendon Press, 2004.

O’Rourke, F. “Aristotle and the Metaphysics of Evolution” The Review of Metaphysics vol. 56, September 2004, pp. 3-59.

1. In short, I will argue that adaptive purpose is an emergent quality of physics, and thus does not derive its telosfrom physics in the same way we find in Aristotle. So long as adaptive functions can be implemented in known physical interactions, then we have all we need for our concept of ‘purpose’, which we hope to show is substantially the same as the of Aristotle.


One thought on “The Metaphysics of ‘Natural Goodness’, Pt. III

  1. Pingback: The Metaphysics of ‘Natural Goodness’, pt. II | Zoon Echon Blogon

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