Causes, proximate and ultimate

Biology and Philosophy 5 (4):401-415 (1990)
Within evolutionary biology a distinction is frequently made between proximate and ultimate causes. One apparently plausible interpretation of this dichotomy is that proximate causes concern processes occurring during the life of an organism while ultimate causes refer to those processes (particularly natural selection) that shaped its genome. But ultimate causes are not sought through historical investigations of an organisms lineage. Rather, explanations referring to ultimate causes typically emerge from functional analyses. But these functional analyses do not identify causes of any kind, much less ultimate ones. So-called ultimate explanations are not about causes in any sense resembling those of proximate explanations. The attitude, implicit in the term ultimate cause, that these functional analyses are somehow superordinate to those involving proximate causes is unfounded. Ultimate causes are neither ultimate nor causes.
Keywords Proximate cause  ultimate cause  function  functionalism  structuralism  adaptation  sociobiology  behavioral ecology
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DOI 10.1007/BF02207379
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Edward O. Wilson (2000). Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Journal of the History of Biology 33 (3):577-584.

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