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Why how and why aren’t enough: more problems with Mayr’s proximate-ultimate distinction

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Like Laland et al., I think Mayr’s distinction is problematic, but I identify a further problem with it. I argue that Mayr’s distinction is a false dichotomy, and obscures an important question about evolutionary change. I show how this question, once revealed, sheds light on some debates in evo-devo that Laland et al.’s analysis cannot, and suggest that it provides a different view about how future integration between biological disciplines might proceed.

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  1. It did more than this, but these are the issues that concern us here.

  2. Mayr originally framed his distinction in terms of causation, and Laland et al. have followed his lead. Like others (Amundson (2005), for example), I prefer to talk of different kinds of explanation.

  3. Ronald Amundson has argued for some time that the conflict between developmental and evolutionary biologists often comes down to their interest in different kinds of explanation (Amundson 2001), and he points to Mayr distinction as a source of confusion on this topic (See discussion in Amundson 2005). My arguments in this paper are an attempt to say precisely what those differences are.

  4. As far as I know, Ariew (2003) was the first to suggest that Mayr’s distinction may have something to do with individuals and populations, though he presents the issue in rather different light than I do here.

  5. Due to space limitations, I’m giving a very informal version of mechanistic explanation, grounded in an interventionist account of causation (See, for example, Craver 2009; Glennan 2005; Machamer et al. 2000; Woodward 2002).

  6. For an example, go here:

  7. In philosophy-speak, the difference between a sick and a healthy person is the explanandum, and the shape of the red blood cells is the explanans. I’m using the terms explanatory target and difference-maker here.

  8. Obviously there is a fourth question too: How do populations work at a time? One possible way to intepret this question is as understanding proximate aspects of social interaction. I’ll say nothing further about this option here.

  9. Tetrapods are four-limbed vertebrates. Their ancestors were fish. So the question concerns how fins were transformed into limbs. See, for example, Hall (2007) or Shubin (2008).

  10. For futher discussion of this example, see Calcott (2009).

  11. For further discussion of feather development, see Calcott (2009).

  12. Ingo Brigandt outlines a much more piecemeal way that integration might occur across biological disciplines (Brigandt 2010). He suggests that, rather than integrating entire fields, integration may occur in smaller epistomological units—such as a particular research problem.


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Correspondence to Brett Calcott.

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Calcott, B. Why how and why aren’t enough: more problems with Mayr’s proximate-ultimate distinction. Biol Philos 28, 767–780 (2013).

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