So, Teleology is

According to the Cambridge Dictionary:

the belief that everything has a special purpose or use

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

a doctrine (as in vitalism) that ends are immanent in nature, a doctrine explaining phenomena by final causes

Accordign to the Enciclopedia Britannica

an explanation by reference to some purpose, end, goal, or function.

According to Wikipedia:

Is a reason or an explanation for something which serves as a function of its end, its purpose, or its goal, as opposed to something which serves as a function of its cause.

While Teleonomy, is a term coined by Jaques Monod in his book Chance and Necessity, that means:

the quality of apparent purposefulness and of goal-directedness of structures and functions in living organisms brought about by natural processes like natural selection.

I'm struggling a bit with the differences here. Is the only difference that one is and the other seems to be? A teleonomical object is one that has the property of seemingly be teleological in nature?

In that sense a watch would be teleological since it was developed for a specific goal and also teleonomical since the purpose is evident? A dolphin would be teleonomical but not teleological since it is the product of a casual chain of local processes with no foresight in space and time, that developed into a machine that exhibits something that reminds of a purpose? A rock would neither be teleological nor teleonomical since it has no purpose, nor was made by a purposeful process, nor it exhibits traits that would deceive us into thinking it was designed? And a cardboard rock would be teleological but not teleonomical since its purpose is not apparent even if it was purposefully made?

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    A quick google search of teleonomy shows: Teleonomy is sometimes contrasted with teleology, where the latter is understood as a purposeful goal-directedness brought about through human or divine intention. Teleonomy is thought to derive from evolutionary history, adaptation for reproductive success, and/or the operation of a program. Teleonomy is related to programmatic or computational aspects of purpose... Aug 13, 2022 at 20:37
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    It is not that one is and the other only seems to be, they both are. But teleology suggests that purposfulness is actively operative in how things behave, while teleonomy only uses it as explanation. So we can explain that leaves turn to face the sun for the purpose of increasing photosynthesis, without suggesting that they have that purpose "in mind" and turn to pursue it. They turn because light affects their biochemistry in ways that causes them to turn (due to selection of specimen with that trait). So teleonomic explanations do not replace causal ones, as teleological ones do.
    – Conifold
    Aug 13, 2022 at 23:37

2 Answers 2


I assume Monod chose a different term here in order to make clear that there actually is something that appears to us as purposefulness instilled in living organisms through evolution, namely that their structures and functions serve different purposes that all work towards an overarching purpose, which is the survival of the species.

As you note, most artifacts (products of culture) are inherently teleological as they were made to serve an end, made with ends in mind.

Classically, nature was also considered to be instilled with telos the same way, through the making of a higher being that created everything with ends in mind. A kind of artificial nature, as it were.

Teleonomical objects are, by definition, different as they naturally developed structures and functions that appear to serve purposes.

Therefore, there are two cases Monod tries to differentiate from when using Teleonomy as a new term, both of which have historically been linked to Teleology:

  1. Nature as a whole seen as instilled with telos by a higher being that created nature, living and dead, with ends in mind.
  2. Artifacts that were instilled with telos as we created them with ends in mind.

Telos has always been linked to mind: We tend to think and act in terms of end-means relations and so we naturally assume that any structure or function that makes sense to us was conceived and created by another mind. As Kant points out in his third Critique, living nature is the prime example of something that appears to us in teleological terms: all structures and functions seem to serve a purpose. But we have to keep in mind that it does so because we naturally think in these categories.

Thus, the term and definition is needed to point out two things: that the telos is apparent, ie it (only) appears to us this way and there is no "essential" telos to be found, and it is natural, ie not due to a mind that instilled the telos through creation. Both aspects are there to side-step any metaphysical consequences of there being a creator-mind, so that end-means relations can be used purely descriptional without having to be dragged into metaphysical discussions.

I have not read the book, though, so this is an educated guess.


Teleology is purpose-driven behavior. Teleonomy is purpose-driven behavior due to a code or mechanism. Teleonomy was developed by Pittendrigh / Mayr to separate out the teleological behavior of animals from any teleological thought of evolution. That is, they wanted to show how animals could behave teleologically even when disconnected from a higher telos due to evolutionary considerations.

However, whether or not they were successful in this attempted dis-linkage is questionable. Lots of recent research has focused on mechanisms within evolution that are teleological (at least teleonomic). A good review (though dated) is Caporale's "The Implicit Genome".

I recently included a lengthy discussion about the distinctiveness and usefulness of the concept of teleonomy in a paper, "Causal Capabilities of Teleology and Teleonomy in Life and Evolution". Essentially, I distinguished between primary teleology (intentioned goals) and secondary teleonomy (goals that have been reified in a code or mechanism), as well as between internal teleology (within an organism) and external teleology (outside an organism). Because teleonomy is based on mechanisms, teleonomy can be reasoned about through physics and information theory, while primary teleology does not (at least presently) have this ability.

Note that there is another concept, called teleomatic, which is an "end" like a physical end (i.e., if a pitcher throws a ball, the ball is guided to its "end" based on physics). Nagel has used this to criticize teleonomy, pointing out that if teleonomy is just a mechanism, then there is no difference between teleomatic and teleonomic behavior. I pointed out that there is a difference, because, in teleonomic behavior, you can infer outcomes more easily/precisely by understanding the underlying purpose than you can by examining physical microstates, which may be either intractable or possibly indeterminate using physics alone.

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