More on how and why: cause and effect in biology revisited

Abstract

In 1961, Ernst Mayr published a highly influential article on the nature of causation in biology, in which he distinguished between proximate and ultimate causes. Mayr argued that proximate causes (e.g. physiological factors) and ultimate causes (e.g. natural selection) addressed distinct ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions and were not competing alternatives. That distinction retains explanatory value today. However, the adoption of Mayr’s heuristic led to the widespread belief that ontogenetic processes are irrelevant to evolutionary questions, a belief that has (1) hindered progress within evolutionary biology, (2) forged divisions between evolutionary biology and adjacent disciplines and (3) obstructed several contemporary debates in biology. Here we expand on our earlier (Laland et al. in Science 334:1512–1516, 2011) argument that Mayr’s dichotomous formulation has now run its useful course, and that evolutionary biology would be better served by a concept of reciprocal causation, in which causation is perceived to cycle through biological systems recursively. We further suggest that a newer evolutionary synthesis is unlikely to emerge without this change in thinking about causation.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Kim Sterelny who contributed substantially to the ideas presented in this article, and Tim Fawcett, Agustin Fuentes, Luc-Alain Giraldeau, Jerry Hogan, Kim Sterelny, Ward Watt, Stuart West, and two anonymous referees, who provided helpful comments on an earlier draft. Research supported in part by an ERC Advanced grant to KNL.

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Laland, K.N., Odling-Smee, J., Hoppitt, W. et al. More on how and why: cause and effect in biology revisited. Biol Philos 28, 719–745 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-012-9335-1

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Keywords

  • Niche construction
  • Nongenetic inheritance
  • Evo-devo
  • Cultural evolution