Published by MIT Press

August 2023

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Publisher’s Blurb

A unique exploration of teleonomy―also known as “evolved purposiveness”―as a major influence in evolution by a broad range of specialists in biology and the philosophy of science. The evolved purposiveness of living systems, termed “teleonomy” by chronobiologist Colin Pittendrigh, has been both a major outcome and causal factor in the history of life on Earth. Many theorists have appreciated this over the years, going back to Lamarck and even Darwin in the nineteenth century. In the mid-twentieth century, however, the complex, dynamic process of evolution was simplified into the one-way, bottom-up, single gene-centered paradigm widely known as the modern synthesis. In Evolution “On Purpose,” edited by Peter A. Corning, Stuart A. Kauffman, Denis Noble, James A. Shapiro, Richard I. Vane-Wright, and Addy Pross, some twenty theorists attempt to modify this reductive approach by exploring in depth the different ways in which living systems have themselves shaped the course of evolution. Evolution “On Purpose” puts forward a more inclusive theoretical synthesis that goes far beyond the underlying principles and assumptions of the modern synthesis to accommodate work since the 1950s in molecular genetics, developmental biology, epigenetic inheritance, genomics, multilevel selection, niche construction, physiology, behavior, biosemiotics, chemical reaction theory, and other fields. In the view of the authors, active biological processes are responsible for the direction and the rate of evolution. Essays in this collection grapple with topics from the two-way “read-write” genome to cognition and decision-making in plants to the niche-construction activities of many organisms to the self-making evolution of humankind. As this collection compellingly shows, and as bacterial geneticist James Shapiro emphasizes, “The capacity of living organisms to alter their own heredity is undeniable.


Peter A. Corning is Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems and Professor of Human Biology at Stanford University. He has been a science writer for Newsweek and has also authored seven books and more than 200 professional and print media articles.

Stuart A. Kauffman is an American theoretical biologist and complex systems researcher who studies the origin of life on Earth. He has published over 350 articles and six books: The Origins of Order, At Home in the UniverseInvestigationsReinventing the SacredHumanity in a Creative Universe, and A World beyond Physics.

Denis Noble was Professor of Cardiovascular Physiology at the University of Oxford until 2004, when he retired and switched his focus to evolutionary biology. He is author of The Music of Life and Dance to the Tune of Life. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society.

James A. Shapiro is Professor of Microbiology in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Chicago. He has published pioneering books on mobile genetic elements, natural genetic engineering, bacterial multicellularity, and read-write genome evolution.

Richard I. Vane-Wright is an entomologist associated with the Natural History Museum (London) for over sixty years. He now divides his time between studies on the history of entomology, butterfly systematics, the theory of evolution, and attitudes to nature and the conservation of biodiversity.

Addy Pross is Professor of Chemistry (Emeritus) at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. His research interests lie in the physics/chemistry-biology relationship and the origin of life problem. His pioneering book What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology has been published in close to a dozen languages.