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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Teleonomy is the quality of apparent purposefulness and of goal-directedness of structures and functions in living organisms that derive from their evolutionary history, adaptation for reproductive success, or generally, due to the operation of a program. Teleonomy is related to programmatic or computational aspects of purpose.

The term was coined to stand in contrast with teleology, which applies to ends that are planned by an agent which can internally model/imagine various alternative futures and, enables intention, purpose and foresight. A teleonomic process, such as evolution, produces complex products without the benefit of a guiding foresight.

Evolution largely hoards hindsight, as variations unwittingly make "predictions" about structures and functions which could successfully cope with the future, and participate in an audition which culls the also-rans, leaving winners for the next generation. Information accumulates about functions and structures that are successful, exploiting feedback from the environment via the selection of fitter coalitions of structures and functions. These features also have been described by Robert Rosen as an anticipatory system which builds an internal model based on past and possible futures states.

Richard Dawkins described the properties of "archeo-purpose" by natural selection and "neo-purpose" by evolved adaptation, in his talk on the "Purpose of Purpose." As an evolutionary feature, the brain's flexibility in adapting or subverting goals was attributed to making neo-purpose goals on an overarching evolutionary archeo-purpose. Language allows groups to share neo-purposes and cultural evolution, occurring much faster than natural evolution, can lead to conflict or collaborations. <ref>,3956,The-Purpose-of-Purpose,Richard-Dawkins</ref>

In the later part of his working with a theory of social evolution and a related theory of world-history, Talcott Parsons adopted the concept of teleonomy as the fundamental organizing principle for directional processes and his theory of societal development in general. In this way, Parsons tried to find a theoretical compromise between voluntarism as a principle of action and the idea of a certain directionality in history.

In behavior analysis, the adverbial distinction between purposefulness, having an internal determination and pusposiveness, serving or effecting a useful function was made by Hayne Reese. Reese implies that non-teleological statements are called teleonomic when they represent an "if A then C" phenomenon's antecedent; where, teleology is a consequent representation. The concept of purpose, as only being the teleology final cause, requires impossible time reversal; because, the future consequent determines the present antecedent. Purpose, as being both in the beginning and the end, simply rejects teleology, and addresses the time reversal problem. In this, Reese sees no value for teleology and teleonomic concepts in behavior analysis; however, the concept of purpose preserved in process can be useful, if not reified.

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