Biology’s Divorce from Teleology

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 10/05/2021

Can you tell the difference between the following two sentences?

The heart is pumping blood.

The heart is made to pump blood.

They sound similar, but they are worlds apart. The first sentence is descriptive. It’s how an observer might describe what the heart is doing. The second sentence is prescriptive and presupposes the heart is designed to do something—pump blood.

The medical community has historically presupposed all human organs were designed to perform a function. The study of design is called teleology. The heart is designed to pump blood, the eye is made to see, and muscles are meant to move joints. Every part of the body is intended to do something in particular.

Proper medical care entails recognizing the teleology of human anatomy. Doctors are trained to assess the heart’s function. When it fails to operate in the way it was intended (pump blood or pump it efficiently), they recognize its disease state and provide treatment to return it to its optimal function. Notice the language: intended, disease, function. All these words presuppose that body parts have a prescribed function.

Teleology has a second implication. If body parts have an intended function, then using them in a way that violates their design can cause damage. For example, there are multiple orifices (openings) in the human head: the nose, mouth, and ear. Each orifice is engineered a certain way. The nose is made to draw in air. The mouth can accommodate air, food, and fluids. The ear is only able to receive sound waves. The orifices are not interchangeable. If you were to use the ear in a way it was not designed to function, you would cause damage. Putting french fries in your mouth is fine, but jamming them in your ears can damage your ear drum.

Though thinking this way seems like common sense, culture is changing, and even doctors are abandoning this view. A professor of psychiatry recently told me that the medical school where he teaches in California is abandoning teleological language. They no longer describe human organs as being designed to perform a specific function. Rather, organs simply do certain things. The heart, for example, is not designed to pump blood. Rather, it happens to pump blood. If it only pumps blood half as efficiently in your body as the heart in someone else’s body, you may not desire that. Though a doctor can help you change how well it ejects blood from its chambers, the goal is not to restore the heart’s function to its intended design.

Of course, abandoning teleological language makes sense in a society that is jettisoning the Christian worldview. The only way to have designed organs that function a certain way is to have a Designer who engineered them. Once you abandon the Designer in favor of an undirected process like evolution, then organs lose their teleology. They may have evolved to do certain things, but they were never intended to do so. Hearts currently pump blood in most humans, but no one ever intended to create one to fulfill that function.

The implications of this shift are legion. Throughout the history of human medicine, it was understood that if you used an organ in way that violated its function, you were abusing that body part. Men who had “sex” with men, or women who had “sex” with women, were viewed as violating the intended purpose of their sex organs. Psychologists diagnosed a desire that drove a person to engage in such actions as a disorder.

But with the rise of secular thinking and the abandoning of teleological descriptions of human anatomy, such assessments were deemed outmoded. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association voted (not based on new medical data) that homosexuality was no longer a mental disorder. That makes sense if you don’t believe organs have an intended design.

A similar shift has occurred with biological sex. It’s been understood in the past that people with XY chromosomes are male and those with XX chromosomes are female. An increasing number of people today, however, believe that because chromosomal variations like XXY, XYY, and XXX can occur, the sexual binary (only two sexes exist—male and female) is a fiction. If you reject the teleological nature of humanity, then it’s easy to see why variations from the norm are seen not as disordered, but as equal and valid expressions of a different sex.*

This is the new world we live in. By abandoning the Christian worldview—and a Designer who designed all things—we’re left with a world bereft of teleology. Things just are, and they aren’t supposed to be a certain way. It’s a perfect backdrop to bully people who hold to what society says are archaic standards of sexuality. I don’t mean to imply we should play the role of a victim, however. Rather, we ought to play the role of a prophet by calling our culture to adopt a view of reality that makes sense. Abandoning teleological language won’t only lead to a culture permissive of an anything-goes ideology, but it will also prevent people from recognizing the Designer behind what is made, the evidence that Romans 1:19–20 so eloquently asserted can be clearly seen.


* People who have a chromosomal makeup that is different from XX and XY are still made in God’s image, equally valuable to every other person on the planet, and precious in God’s eyes.