Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 25, Issue 3, pp 287–318 | Cite as

Causation in biology: stability, specificity, and the choice of levels of explanation

  • James WoodwardEmail author


This paper attempts to elucidate three characteristics of causal relationships that are important in biological contexts. Stability has to do with whether a causal relationship continues to hold under changes in background conditions. Proportionality has to do with whether changes in the state of the cause “line up” in the right way with changes in the state of the effect and with whether the cause and effect are characterized in a way that contains irrelevant detail. Specificity is connected both to David Lewis’ notion of “influence” and also with the extent to which a causal relation approximates to the ideal of one cause–one effect. Interrelations among these notions and their possible biological significance are also discussed.


Cause Stability Levels of explanation Specificity 



Versions of this paper were given as talks at a Boston Studies in Philosophy of Science Colloquium on causation in biology and physics, October, 2006, a University of Maryland conference on causation and mechanisms in April, 2007, at the University of Pittsburgh, October, 2007 and at meetings of the SPSP and the Behavioral Genetics Association in June, 2009. Particular thanks to James Bogen, Lindley Darden, Peter Machamer, Sandra Mitchell, Ken Schaffner, Ken Waters, Marcel Weber, and especially Ken Kendler for helpful discussion.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.California Institute of Technology (Caltech)PasadenaUSA

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