Review

Cause and Effect in Biology Revisited: Is Mayr’s Proximate-Ultimate Dichotomy Still Useful?

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Science  16 Dec 2011:
Vol. 334, Issue 6062, pp. 1512-1516
DOI: 10.1126/science.1210879

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Abstract

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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