Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 28, Issue 5, pp 781–786 | Cite as

Proximate and ultimate causes: how come? and what for?



Proximate and ultimate causes in evolutionary biology have come to conflate two distinctions. The first is a distinction between immediate and historical causes. The second is between explanations of mechanism and adaptive function. Mayr emphasized the first distinction but many evolutionary biologists use proximate and ultimate causes to refer to the second. I recommend that ‘ultimate cause’ be abandoned as ambiguous.


Proximate cause Ultimate cause Efficient cause Final cause Intentionality Adaptation Natural selection 



I thank Thomas Dickins and Samir Okasha for comments on the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Organismic and Evolutionary BiologyHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA

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