Proximal Vs. Distal (Ultimate) Causes

From: Foster S.M. (
Date: Tue May 21 1996 - 09:35:03 BST

What is the difference between proximal and distal causes in evolution?

In a simplistic way, distal causes of evolution are to do with changes
in the genes of an organism and proximal causes of evolution are via
societal behaviours which aid survival chances. Ideas of evolution show
that mutation of genes of any life form will give subtle
diversification of the species. Mix this with a climatic change and
some forms of the species will be better prepared for survival than
others and so some of the "gene pool" is made extinct. This is not
survival of the fittest but survival of the "best fit" to the immediate
environment. This is how distal causes of evolution occur. In the
evolution of man, possibly 50,000 years ago or earlier, language and
higher cognition evolved. This example will be used to show the
interplay between proximal and distal causes of evolution and how they
are different; although the example is speculative. Cognition has it's
original roots in distal change. This change gave greater ability for
cognition and communication, with the aid of structural changes in the
brain and vocal tract. Cognition and language was used to help produce
stone tools etc. to aid hunting and so gave rise to higher chances of
survival. This can be seen as a proximal cause of survival. Distal
causes of evolution are gene based whereas proximal causes are based
in society (at least with respect to humans).

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