, Volume 78, Supplement 2, pp 179–197 | Cite as

The Concept of Causation in Biology

  • Michael JoffeEmail author
Original Article


This paper sets out to analyze how causation works by focusing on biology, as represented by epidemiology and by scientific information on how the body works (“physiology”). It starts by exploring the specificity of evolved physiological systems, in which evolutionary, developmental and proximal causes all fit together, and the concept of function is meaningful; in contrast, this structure does not apply in epidemiology (or outside biology). Using these two contrasting branches of biology, I examine the role both of mechanism and of difference making in causation. I find that causation necessarily involves both mechanism and difference making, and that they play complementary roles. Both are seen as ontologically necessary, even if the evidence is not always available for both. Influential monist accounts that focus on one of these, at the expense of ignoring the other, are found to be inadequate on these and on other grounds. Recent attempts to combine them are reviewed, notably that of Russo and Williamson (Int Stud Philos Sci 21:157–170, 2007), and it is argued that their epistemic view requires there to be a source of the different types of evidence that a rational agent would consider, and that this source must be ontic. I then analyze how causal relationships work in evolved physiological systems and in those studied by epidemiology, with a particular focus on how mechanism interacts with input. Finally, I consider this concept of causation from the perspective of everyday language, and of its possible generalisability outside biology.


Causal Relationship Rickets Causal Claim Deterministic Causation Causal Relevance 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Imperial College LondonLondonUK

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