Teleonomy as a problem of self-causation

Biological Journal of the Linnean Society (forthcoming)
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A theoretical framework is provided to explore teleonomy as a problem of self-causation, distinct from upward, downward and reticulate causation. Causality theories in biology are often formulated within hierarchy theories, where causation is conceptualized as running up or down the rungs of a ladder-like hierarchy or, more recently, as moving between multiple hierarchies. Research on the genealogy of cosmologies demonstrates that in addition to hierarchy theories, causality theories also depend upon ideas of time. This paper explores the roots and impact of both time and hierarchy thinking on causal reasoning in the evolutionary sciences. Within evolutionary biology, the Neodarwinian synthesis adheres to a linear notion of time associated with linear hierarchies that portray upward causation. Eco-evo-devo schools recognize the importance of downward causation and consequently receive resistance from the standard view because downward causation is sometimes understood as backward causation, considered impossible by adherents of a linear time model. In contrast, downward causation works with a spatial or presential time notion. Hybridization, lateral gene transfer, infective heredity, symbiosis and symbiogenesis require recognition of reticulate causation occurring in both space and time, or spacetime, between distinct and interacting ontological hierarchies. Teleonomy is distinct from these types of causation because it invokes the problem of self-causation. By asking how the focal level in a hierarchy can persist through time, self-causation raises philosophical concerns on the nature of duration, identity and individuality.

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