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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



correspondence of a phenomenon or a process to a specific (relatively complete) condition whose concrete or abstract model assumes the form of a goal, or purpose. Purposefulness is regarded on the one hand as the immanent, or internal, relationship of an object to itself, and on the other hand as a certain relationship in the realm of the interaction of object and subject. As a relationship that is characteristic of human activity, purposefulness may also be defined as a scientific principle for the study of the structure and functions of self-regulating and equifinal systems (that is, systems that can yield the same end results regardless of initial conditions).

Genetically, the concept of purposefulness is linked to goalsetting—an essential element of human activity that characterizes both the thought processes and the object-directed activity of human beings, and of labor first of all (see K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 23, p. 189). Man’s purposeful activity is based on the laws of the external world, or nature (see V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 29, p. 171).

Prescientific thinking, with its anthropomorphism, extended the notion of purposefulness—a quality inherent in human activity—to nature. Anthropomorphism is also an attribute of the religious world view, which interprets purposefulness as a manifestation of divine reason; the distorted view of purposefulness in idealist teleology can be traced back to anthropomorphism. At the same time, some of the dialectical aspects of purposefulness were disclosed in classical teleology, as represented by the immanent teleology of Aristotle, G. von Leibniz, F. von Schelling, and especially G. Hegel. But it is dialectical-materialist thought that brings to light the objective meaning of purposefulness, and it is only within this framework that purposefulness can be scientifically interpreted.

In the examination of purposefulness as an objective fact of nature, the study of organic purposefulness assumes special significance. Organic purposefulness is manifested, for example, in the distinctive makeup and functions, operation of the metabolism, and control and regulation of living systems. It was here that teleology, in its various forms, laid its claim if not to universal significance then at least to the role of an essential “accessory” supplementing an allegedly inadequate causal analysis.

With the development of biology, teleological thinking was gradually superseded, and explanations of organic purposefulness were addressed to its physical causes. Darwin’s theory of evolution, which was particularly important in this respect, explained organic purposefulness as the adaptation of organisms to the conditions of their existence. While rejecting teleology, Darwinism did not discard organic purposefulness as a factor in biology.

Dialectical-materialist determinism explains not only the structural but also the genetic aspects of organic purposefulness; it introduces the notion of the directedness (or, in this sense, purposefulness) observed in the morphological and physiological reactions of living systems—for example, in hereditary changes and in metabolic and thermodynamic processes. Actually, this quality of directedness is only observed as a general tendency—that is, statistically—rather than as an unambiguous characteristic; such directedness is determined by the interaction of external and internal conditions and by the active nature of organisms developing on both the historical and the individual level.

Biocybernetics has brought to light certain new aspects of organic purposefulness; a notable instance is the feedback principle in living systems; or the principle of reverse action of the final result, or effect, of a process on its starting point, or beginning. The purposefulness of this relationship may be defined as a specific form of interaction showing that processes tend in a definite direction and are conditioned by their final results, in the guise of impending purposes, or ends; of course, the question here is not one of conscious purposes, but only of inherently objective analogs of purposes.

Such conditional use of the concept of purposefulness need not be a basis for its rejection. The analogy with purposeful human activity can be very effective in some cases, and especially so in biology and cybernetics. Furthermore, it is altogether legitimate to use a particular scientific approach—namely, the goal-directed approach, whereby research is directed toward analysis of the purpose relationship or interaction of processes in equifinal systems. This approach is based on the methodological principle of purposefulness, which consists in the subordination of the process of scientific research to its final stage, or end purpose. Thus interpreted, the goal-directed approach may be broadly applied not only in the study of such systems but also in research on cyclic or ongoing processes.

In biology. Biological purposefulness is the adaptability of organisms (that is, of an organism as a whole) to life conditions, as well the fitness of their individual organs to fulfill their inherent functions. For example, the extremities of vertebrates are variously adapted to moving on hard or on loose ground, jumping, burrowing in the earth, tree-climbing, swimming, gliding, or flying; the sense organs are adapted to the perception of light, (the eyes), of sound vibrations (the organs of hearing), of chemical substances (the organs of smell and taste); and the shape of the teeth is adapted to holding or killing prey, rending animal flesh, or grinding up vegetable feed. Protective or warning coloration and other camouflage properties are another form of purposeful adaptation.

Further instances of purposeful organization can be observed in mutual adaptations, such as the peculiar structures of plants and insects that ensure the cross-pollination of flowers. An example of this kind of adaptation is the distinctive structure of some flowers, such as orchids and flowering sage. As an insect seeks to draw nectar from a flower, it is covered with pollen, which is then transported by it to the pistil of another flower. A very graphic illustration of animals’ mutual adaptation can be found in parasitism, where the parasite develops a formation enabling it to adhere to the surface of the host or to live inside its body, whereas the host adapts to the parasite by developing properties that diminish the parasite’s harmful effect.

Before the appearance of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), and sometimes even after its publication, various attempts were made to treat organic purposefulness as the result of the external environment’s effect on the organism, whether by direct action or by causing the use of an organ to be exercised or not; the unfounded hypothesis was that organisms were capable of changing so as to fit existing conditions as well as of inheriting such adaptive changes.

The materialist explanation of the purposeful formative and functional reactions in ontogenesis and the emergence of purposeful characteristics in phylogenesis tends to recognize purposefulness as the result of natural selection, whereby the organisms that survive are those endowed with adaptive traits—that is, traits that correspond to life conditions. Any degree of such adaptability in the structure and vital activity of organisms is relative, since adaptive traits remain adaptive only under certain life conditions and cease being adaptive under changed conditions.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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