Teleological reasoning about nature: Intentional design or relational perspectives?

bethany Ojalehto*, Sandra R. Waxman, Douglas L. Medin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


According to the theory of 'promiscuous teleology', humans are naturally biased to (mistakenly) construe natural kinds as if they (like artifacts) were intentionally designed 'for a purpose'. However, this theory introduces two paradoxes. First, if infants readily distinguish natural kinds from artifacts, as evidence suggests, why do school-aged children erroneously conflate this distinction? Second, if Western scientific education is required to overcome promiscuous teleological reasoning, how can one account for the ecological expertise of non-Western educated, indigenous people? Here, we develop an alternative 'relational-deictic' interpretation, proposing that the teleological stance may not index a deep-rooted belief that nature was designed for a purpose, but instead may reflect an appreciation of the perspectival relations among living things and their environments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)166-171
Number of pages6
JournalTrends in Cognitive Sciences
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2013


  • Culture
  • Natural kinds
  • Perspective taking
  • Relational and ecological reasoning
  • Teleological reasoning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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