Biology and Philosophy 30 (5):653-670 (2015)

Massimo Pigliucci
CUNY Graduate Center
Mayr’s proximate–ultimate distinction has received renewed interest in recent years. Here we discuss its role in arguments about the relevance of developmental to evolutionary biology. We show that two recent critiques of the proximate–ultimate distinction fail to explain why developmental processes in particular should be of interest to evolutionary biologists. We trace these failures to a common problem: both critiques take the proximate–ultimate distinction to neglect specific causal interactions in nature. We argue that this is implausible, and that the distinction should instead be understood in the context of explanatory abstractions in complete causal models of evolutionary change. Once the debate is reframed in this way, the proximate–ultimate distinction’s role in arguments against the theoretical significance of evo-devo is seen to rely on a generally implicit premise: that the variation produced by development is abundant, small and undirected. We show that a “lean version” of the proximate–ultimate distinction can be maintained even when this isotropy assumption does not hold. Finally, we connect these considerations to biological practice. We show that the investigation of developmental constraints in evolutionary transitions has long relied on a methodology which foregrounds the explanatory role of developmental processes. It is, however, entirely compatible with the lean version of the proximate–ultimate distinction
Keywords Proximate–ultimate distinction  Ernst Mayr  Evolutionary developmental biology  Niche construction  Plasticity  Abstraction  Methodology  Pere Alberch
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Reprint years 2015
DOI 10.1007/s10539-014-9427-1
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Thinking About Mechanisms.Peter Machamer, Lindley Darden & Carl F. Craver - 2000 - Philosophy of Science 67 (1):1-25.
On the Origin of Species.Charles Darwin - 2008 - Oxford University Press.

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Biosemiotics and Applied Evolutionary Epistemology: A Comparison.Nathalie Gontier & M. Facoetti - 2021 - In In: Pagni E., Theisen Simanke R. (eds) Biosemiotics and Evolution. Interdisciplinary Evolution Research, vol 6. Springer, Cham. Cham: pp. 175-199.

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