Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 30, Issue 1, pp 19–37 | Cite as

Using causal models to integrate proximate and ultimate causation

  • Jun Otsuka


Ernst Mayr’s classical work on the nature of causation in biology has had a huge influence on biologists as well as philosophers. Although his distinction between proximate and ultimate causation recently came under criticism from those who emphasize the role of development in evolutionary processes, the formal relationship between these two notions remains elusive. Using causal graph theory, this paper offers a unified framework to systematically translate a given “proximate” causal structure into an “ultimate” evolutionary response, and illustrates evolutionary implications of various kinds of causal mechanisms including epigenetic inheritance, maternal effects, and niche construction. These results not only reveal the essential interplay between proximate and ultimate causation in the study of evolution, but also provide a formal method to evaluate or discover non-standard or yet unknown evolutionary phenomena.


Proximate and ultimate causation Extended synthesis  Epigenetic inheritance Niche construction Causal models Price equation 



I thank James Griesemer, Elisabeth Lloyd, Samuel Ketcham, Kim Sterelny, and an anonymous reviewer for providing useful comments. Proofreading by Stephen Friesen is also appreciated. This work was supported by Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of California, DavisDavisUSA

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