Cause and effect in biology

By: James V. Kohl | Published on: December 16, 2011

Cause and Effect in Biology Revisited: Is Mayr’s Proximate-Ultimate Dichotomy Still Useful?

Abstract (full text requires a subscription)
Fifty years ago, Ernst Mayr published a hugely influential paper on the nature of causation in biology, in which he distinguished between proximate and ultimate causes. Mayr equated proximate causation with immediate factors (for example, physiology) and ultimate causation with evolutionary explanations (for example, natural selection). He argued that proximate and ultimate causes addressed different questions and were not alternatives. Mayr’s account of causation remains widely accepted today, with both positive and negative ramifications. Several current debates in biology (for example, over evolution and development, niche construction, cooperation, and the evolution of language) are linked by a common axis of acceptance/rejection of Mayr’s model of causation. We argue that Mayr’s formulation has acted to stabilize the dominant evolutionary paradigm against change but may now hamper progress in the biological sciences.
My comment accepted after submission on Fri, 12/16/2011 – 08:47:
From the perspective of molecular biology it seems most likely that the causal link between food acquisition and further developmental effects on all organisms is the most basic of all considerations. Organisms that lack sufficient nutrition do not reproduce. Those that reproduce use chemical signals to communicate self / non-self differences. The chemical signals are derived from successful metabolism of food. This makes chemical signals from food and from conspecifics the most important of all signals involved in biologically based cause and effect. The reciprocity, which requires food acquisition prior to reproduction and species survival, is correctly derived from what is already known about the epigenetic effects of chemical signals from food sources and from conspecifics, and their direct effect on the levels of biological organization that link them to the genes and behavior across species.

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