Teleology

Can we make a meaningful distinction between the purpose of a particular organ or behaviour in the species and its purpose in a particular individual?

For instance, if the species of bear Ursus Schmursus has a special claw for peeling wild onions, is it a consequence of this teleological fact that, for any member B of that species, B’s special claw is for peeling wild onions? (I’m allowing for individuals that don’t have the claw, or are unable to peel onions for other reasons of poor health, as uninteresting exceptions.)

Perhaps ‘in the species, the claw is for …’ just means ‘for every member of the species, the claw is for …’? That seems a bit off. It doesn’t respect the difference between a species and the current population of individuals of that species. For instance, if an individual bear is clever enough to sharpen the points of its claws to pierce milk-bottle tops, then it seemingly becomes the case that its claw is (also) for piercing milk-bottle tops. If all other bears of the species then die of calcium deficiency, leaving this one the sole survivor, it becomes the case that for every member of the species, the claw is for piercing milk-bottle tops. So if the equation just described is true, it becomes the case that in the species, the claw is for piercing milk-bottle tops. I don’t think it should be the case that facts about the purposes of organs in the species can change suddenly due to widespread deaths of its members.

To the original question, whether the ‘in the species …’ claim has as a consequence the ‘in every individual of the species …’ claim, it will be possible to give a glib ‘no’, which I want to rule out, if the purposes aren’t described charitably. For instance, if Ursus Schmursus females, and only females, have beards to attract the males, and in the females the special claw is also for combing the beard to keep it tidy, then an uncharitable formulation would have it that in the species the claw is for combing the beard, but in male individuals the claw is not for combing the beard. A better formulation might be something like ‘the claw is for combing the beard in females’, or whatever. In any case, the more interesting question is: if you are an Ursus Schmursus, and in that species the special claw is for peeling wild onions, must you accept that your special claw is for peeling wild onions?
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: