James Lovelock controversially proposed the Gaia hypothesis in the 1970s which outraged certain sensibilities because of its implicit teleology (I recall being outraged by it when I read about it thirty years in an article in New Scientist as it seemed to contradict the principles of natural evolution/selection which on the face of it isn't teleological); however an essay that I read recently in a collection of essays by Stephen Gould showed that the hypothesis could be tested (through computer simulations), and Lovelock won the 2006 Wollaston prize awarded by the Geological Society of London in part for this work.

I also recall reading an essay of Liebniz where he discussed revisiting a notion of the ancients, entelchy; and from what I recall from reading about Aristotle, this is part of a nexus of notion tied to understanding the universe as an organic whole, aka a organism, so that the universe is a kind of cosmic organism (A did discuss evolution, only to rule it out as not being an adequate enough notion).

It occurred to me a few weeks ago that Gaia hypothesis could be taken as understood as restricting the Aristotelian notion to this earth; this earth as a terrestrial organism; I'm not particularly au fait with the literature on the philosophy of biology, but I'm curious what part teleological ideas played in biology in the modern era, before, upto and after Lovelock - as I've pointed out above, I had taken it to be a non-licit notion in biology.

  • The problem with Gaia is not that it is teleological, Lovelock himself disavowed any teleology there:"Nowhere in our writings do we express the idea that planetary self-regulation is purposeful". What Gould wrote in 1997 was in the same vein:"Gaia, to me, only seems to reformulate, in different terms, the basic conclusions long achieved by classically reductionist arguments of biogeochemical cycling theory". Biologists do search for ways to distinguish organism from mechanism, but teleology/entelechy is seen as a non-starter.
    – Conifold
    Apr 24, 2017 at 20:01
  • See review The definition of life: a brief history of an elusive scientific endeavor by Tirard et al. on trying to characterize "organism", but definitions that would count terrestrial ecology, or stars, crystals, etc., as "organisms" are usually ruled out as inadequate.
    – Conifold
    Apr 24, 2017 at 20:22
  • I think @Conifold has the key point. As I oft quote, "All models are wrong; some are useful" the usefulness of a model which treats a terrestrial ecology as an organism is limited by the implications of assigning it such a high status. We, as human beings, have a desire for the term "organism" to mean a particular class of things, and will fight strongly to preserve that. However, I'd argue that the idea that there are larger self-stabilizing systems is not only possible, I find it hard to believe anything else! The question is what value do we get from treating them as such?
    – Cort Ammon
    Apr 24, 2017 at 22:56
  • For most discussions, it's not clear that "Gaia" produces enough stability to be worth including in our models, much less to give it the status of an "organism." However, in some select areas, like climate change, it may be a valid way of looking at things.
    – Cort Ammon
    Apr 24, 2017 at 22:58
  • Some people think humanity is in control of the earth. But it's a preposterous notion, held largely by people with no concept of deep time. We are just the latest petmutation of the life that has been seething and etupting from every orifice for 3 billion years. Ecologists, and biologists generally all accept the complexity of the earth's systems. They issue stark warnings.. we're only harming ourselves. If humanity eradicated all life save ourselves and microbes.. we would die, and the microbes would rebuild. Gaia may not be sentient, but she exists, and she's our mother.
    – Richard
    Mar 27, 2019 at 0:34

1 Answer 1


In the 1950s Biologists began to recognize that one of the features of any given organism's development is that it 'self-regulates. This process termed 'auturgy' puts heavy dents into any evolutionary theory of purely accidental Evolution and random Natural Selection. This auturgy bespeaks an intelligence but does not include any notion of teleology. An excellent reference material for all of the details on the evolution of lifeforms from the simplest to the most complex can be found in Errol E. Harris' "The Foundation of Metaphysics in Science". In it he comfortably 'weds' evolution and intelligent systems into a pairing which proves both compelling and believable. Sapere Aude, Charles M. Saunders

  • A recent work on Harris is Schofield's 2017 thesis. "Auturgy" (p.56) is Harris's idiosyncratic term for what is more commonly called homeostasis, but with Hegelian/vitalistic overtones.
    – Conifold
    Mar 27, 2019 at 0:03
  • @conifold- Fortunately for me, I revisited this question. This time I took notice of your reference to that thesis on E.E. Harris. I've just downloaded it and will read it soon. Can't thank you enough, very thoughtful. CMS
    – user37981
    May 17, 2019 at 23:49
  • @conifold- Harris' employment of auturgy, at least my take on it, goes beyond the equilibrium of homeostasis. This self-auturgy consists in a autonomous process that exhibits a conscious activity which intervenes when an interruption or danger arise for the individual biologic component. As an example Harris asserts that research has observed and reported on the reaction of the bodies cells when the epidermis becomes exposed as in an open wound. The cells which swarm to cover the wound, Did Not Exist Prior to the opening in the surface? Does this make any sense? CMS
    – user37981
    May 18, 2019 at 0:10
  • It is aimed at restoring the disrupted equilibrium (unwounded skin), and so it is homeostasis, at least in the broad sense. I am not sure about "conscious", what's behind it is likely a biochemical mechanism that stimulates production of new cells, or specialization of existing somatic stem cells for the purpose. They are known to be used for regeneration of dying tissues generally.
    – Conifold
    May 18, 2019 at 5:11

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