Teleonomy: Revisiting a Proposed Conceptual Replacement for Teleology

Max Dresow, Alan C. Love

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


The concept of teleonomy has been attracting renewed attention recently. This is based on the idea that teleonomy provides a useful conceptual replacement for teleology, and even that it constitutes an indispensable resource for thinking biologically about purposes. However, both these claims are open to question. We review the history of teleological thinking from Greek antiquity to the modern period to illuminate the tensions and ambiguities that emerged when forms of teleological reasoning interacted with major developments in biological thought. This sets the stage for an examination of Pittendrigh’s (Adaptation, natural selection, and behavior. In: Roe A, Simpson GG (eds) Behavior and evolution. Yale University Press, New Haven, pp 390–416, 1958) introduction of “teleonomy” and its early uptake in the work of prominent biologists. We then explore why teleonomy subsequently foundered and consider whether the term may yet have significance for discussions of goal-directedness in evolutionary biology and philosophy of science. This involves clarifying the relationship between teleonomy and teleological explanation, as well as asking how the concept of teleonomy impinges on research at the frontiers of evolutionary theory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)101-113
Number of pages13
JournalBiological Theory
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors would like to thank Ruth Shaw, members of the Biological Interest Group at the University of Minnesota, and an anonymous reviewer for constructive feedback on the manuscript.

Funding Information:
Max Dresow and Alan C. Love gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the John Templeton Foundation (#62220). The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and not those of the John Templeton Foundation.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023, The Author(s).


  • Adaptation
  • Evolution
  • Goal-directedness
  • Mechanism
  • Purpose

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


Dive into the research topics of 'Teleonomy: Revisiting a Proposed Conceptual Replacement for Teleology'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this