Explanation in History
• jlawler@buffalo.edu
• http://wps.prenhall.com/hss_spodek_wrldhist
Science and Teleology
• “Unlike many existing creation myths,
especially biblical myths, evolutionary theory
postulated no teleology, no ethical or moral
goals and purposes of life.” Spodek, p. 9.
Two kinds of explanation
• How?
– Mechanical cause
• Why?
– Purpose (teleology)
Purposeful human behavior
• I woke early this morning
– Mechanical Cause: alarm clock
– Teleological Cause -- I set it purposefully
• I was late for class
– Mechanical cause -- construction on Grand Island
– Purpose?
Higher purpose?
• Science: conflicting events > no over-all
– Parallelogram of forces; chains of causes
• Teleological explanations
– God’s (the gods’) external will, purpose
• “It’s a sign from Eywa.” (Avatar)
– Other: Fate, Karma, “Cunning of Reason,” balance
of Yin and Yang …, Synchronicity
– “Marriages are made in heaven”
Ancient teleological perspectives
• Natural, spontaneous approach: meaningful,
purposeful world
• Animism of early peoples:
• The sun, moon, stars, planets revolve around
the earth: for what purpose?
• Ptolemaic astronomy/astrology
• Ancient science: World is as it appears to us:
we are in the center
Copernican revolution in science
• Universe, reality does not revolve around me/us/our
• =Reality itself is not as it appears to be: it is not
centered on me, on the earth
• Shift needed: decentering ordinary egocentrism by
scientific reasoning
• >Mechanistic science: Newton’s First Law
– Everything moves in a straight line until or unless
something else forces it to change direction
– “It was just an accident.”
Debunking Darwin
• Cartoon p. 9 (Spodek)
• Elegant woman = “female descendant of
marine ascidian”
• Who is she?
– A being whose existence is purposeful?
– A result of accidental evolutionary causes?
• Reductionism of science?
– We are only a combination of atoms, molecules,
• B. F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity
– Human purpose, free will: an illusion
• Why does the chicken cross the road?
– Unscientific answer?
– Scientific answer: operant conditioning
– 1) random behavior due to evolutionary causes
– 2) history of positive reinforcement
– “Purposes” are effects of, reducible to, mechanical
• 26 Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our
image, according to Our likeness; let them
have dominion over the fish of the sea, over
the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over
all the earth and over every creeping thing
that creeps on the earth."
• 27 So God created man in His [own] image; in
the image of God He created him; male and
female He created them.
Book of Genesis
• Explain existence of human beings
– God’s purposeful creation
• Explain why human beings suffer and die
– Accidents of life?
– Biological causes?
– Purposeful behavior of Adam and Eve: they defy
God’s command
Darwin’s theory of evolution
• Chance variation
– >differences in seeds, offspring due to chance,
accident (or internal causes unrelated to
environmental circumstances)
• Natural selection
– Changing environment, survival advantages
– 1) Some individuals happen to fit/adapt
– 2) Others happen to fail to fit/adapt
Why do giraffes have long necks?
• 1) Teleological Creationist explanation from
• 2) Early secular teleological theory of Lamarck
1744-1829: inheritance of acquired
• 3) Darwin’s (1809-82) naturalistic evolutionism
– Compare to Skinner
God-based theories
• “Creationism”
– literal interpretation of Genesis 1
• “Intelligent Design” or “Theistic evolution”
– Agrees with most phenomena (appearances) of
evolution, not with naturalistic explanation
– (Father) Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., The
Phenomenon of Man: teleological purpose of
evolution: “the Omega Point”
Extra-terrestrial “gardening”
• “2001: A Space Odyssey” by Stanley Kubrick
– Ape-like hominids and the monolith
• Another approach from the Bible:
– “There were giants in the earth in those days; and also
after that, when the sons of God came in unto the
daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the
same became mighty men which were of old, men of
renown.” (Genesis 6:4)
– Evidence for ET Gardening theory? (See books of
Zecharia Sitchin)
Return to Darwin
• “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail,
whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick.” Charles
– New York Times, Feb. 10, 2009 D4
The problem
• Recall Darwin’s main theory:
– Chance variation
– Natural selection: the external environment, not
the purposeful action of individuals, selects those
individuals that are fit to survive
• But the peacock’s tail seems to be an obstacle
to survival
• Thinking about this made Darwin sick,
because it seems to contradict his theory.
Darwin’s solution
• "We may conclude that…those males which
are best able by their various charms to please
or excite the female, are under ordinary
circumstances accepted. If this be admitted,
there is not much difficulty in understanding
how male birds have gradually acquired their
ornamental characters," Darwin wrote.
The answer is love of beauty
• “At the time, Darwin's theory on female
choice in animals, and birds in particular, was
revolutionary, and he spent pages justifying a
bird's appreciation of beauty and the quality
of "love" that must be felt between a pair
bonding for life.”
• http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/20
Teleology in evolution?
• Why does the peahen choose her mate?
• Because of his beautiful tail feathers
• > Its not the external, unconscious environment
that selects, but the female peahen, seeking
beauty in her mate:
– Teleology, purposeful choice, in evolution?
– The “environment” = other plants and animals, and
eventually human beings (“artificial selection”)
• Why does the peahen have a love of the
beautiful? Why is nature so beautiful?
• Plato will provide one explanation!
Evolution of human species 1
• Apes with upright posture, bipedalism
– Due to chance variation some are more upright than
– adapt to plains at edge of forests: the more upright ones
can spot anthills, and so they survive a famine
– Frees forelimbs for other uses
• Large brain
– Intelligently Designed (by God) complexity
– Selected by ET breeding program (artificial selection)
– Failsafe defense against heat stroke through natural
selection? (one Darwinian-type of explanation)
Evolution of human species 2
• Bipedalism liberates forelimbs, allowing for other
– That is not the purpose of bipedalism, but its effect,
one of its consequences
• Arms/hands adapt to tool use
– clean sticks permit the drawing out of ants
– Frees jaws for other uses
• Mouth, larynx adapt to speech
– Permits communication, group cooperation
– survival advantage of this v. individualism
Evolution of human species 3
• Two levels of evolution
– Biological organism (previous slides)
– Evolution of tools outside the body
Evolution of non-biological components of
the human being
• Evolution of material tools
– Simple to complex
– Paleolithic > Neolithic
• Evolution of mental tools (transmitted through
language, songs, writing, etc.)
– Culture is elaborated
• Evolution of group relations

Meaning in History - Personal websites at UB