Science 16 December 2011:
Vol. 334 no. 6062 pp. 1512-1516
Cause and Effect in Biology Revisited: Is Mayr’s Proximate-Ultimate Dichotomy Still Useful?
Kevin N. Laland1,*, Kim Sterelny2,3, John Odling-Smee4, William Hoppitt1, Tobias Uller5
1School of Biology, University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews KY16 9TS, UK.
2School of Philosophy, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia.
3School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington 6140, New Zealand.
4Mansfield College, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3TF, UK.
5Edward Grey Institute, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3PS, UK.
*To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Fifty years ago, Ernst Mayr published a hugely influential paper on the nature of causation in biology, in which he distinguished between proximate and ultimate causes. Mayr equated proximate causation with immediate factors (for example, physiology) and ultimate causation with evolutionary explanations (for example, natural selection). He argued that proximate and ultimate causes addressed different questions and were not alternatives. Mayr’s account of causation remains widely accepted today, with both positive and negative ramifications. Several current debates in biology (for example, over evolution and development, niche construction, cooperation, and the evolution of language) are linked by a common axis of acceptance/rejection of Mayr’s model of causation. We argue that Mayr’s formulation has acted to stabilize the dominant evolutionary paradigm against change but may now hamper progress in the biological sciences.
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