I have long noted that the case for non-teleological evolution was stronger in the past than it is in the present. Consider this tiny example.
Below is a figure from Eukaryotic Evolution: Getting to the Root of the Problem (Simpson and Roger, Current Biology, Vol. 12, R691–R693, October 15, 2002).
The figure on the left is the eukaryotic phylogenetic tree from 1993 and before. Simpson and Roger explain it as follows:
A decade ago, phylogenies based on small subunit ribosomal (r)RNA sequences provided an intuitively appealing evolutionary tree of eukaryotes. Complex eukaryotes, including animals, fungi, plants and most algae, emerged as a broad radiation usually called the ‘eukaryotic crown’ . Below this ‘crown’, more bizarre, and generally simpler, organisms diverged in a ladder-like succession. The small subunit rRNA tree was ‘rooted’ with mitochondrion-lacking unicellular eukaryotes such as diplomonads, parabasalids and microsporidia forming the basal branches (Figure 1a).
Yes, this was intuitively appealing from a non-teleological, neo-darwinian viewpoint.
Those early branching lineages reflected a simple, bizarre state without mitochondria and provided a nice image of a primitive beginning. Then, after hundreds of millions of years of selection pressure for multicellular existence, a more complex and sophistitcated “crown” appeared, including animals and plants.
In a sense, this phylogeny nicely reflected the words of Richard Dawkins, in his book, “The Greatest Show on Earth”:
One thing we can say, on a basis of pure logic rather than evidence, is that Darwin was sensible to say, ‘from so simple a beginning.’…..The beginning had to be simple, and evolution by natural selection is still the only process we know whereby simple beginnings can give rise to complex results.”
But alas, with the analysis of more genes, the tree changed dramatically, no longer reflecting a bizarre simple beginnings evolving into the complex results of the crown groups (see the tree on the right). As Simpson and Roger explain:
Stechmann and Cavalier-Smith  tentatively favour a rooting between amoebozoa plus the fusion cluster on one side, and the opisthokonts alone on the other. This would place animals, fungi and their relatives in the ‘basal’ position in the eukaroytic tree: a humbling reversal for humans when compared to our previous lofty ‘crown’ position under the small subunit rRNAbased model.
Now that’s a strange sentence. Why in the world would it be humbling to belong to a lineage that occupied the ‘basal’ position in the eukaroytic tree? I sure don’t think it is humbling to realize that human cells may more closely reflect the ancestral eukaryotic state than algae, diatoms, or paramecia. That animals, fungi and their relatives may be at the ‘basal’ position in the eukaroytic tree fits more comfortably with front-loading than the old ‘crown’ view. It’s almost as if these complex, ancestral eukaryotic cells were poised to become animals very early on, while the algae, diatoms, or paramecia missed the cue and shot off on tangential pathways.