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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.

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

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Correspondence to David Haig.

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Haig, D. Proximate and ultimate causes: how come? and what for?. Biol Philos 28, 781–786 (2013).

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