Re: Proximal Vs. Distal (Ultimate) Causes

From: HARNAD Stevan (
Date: Tue May 28 1996 - 19:05:14 BST

> From: "Foster S.M." <>
> Date: Tue, 21 May 1996 09:35:03 +0100 (BST)
> 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.

No, distal causes are the ones based on survival and reproduction; the
genes that code for the traits that make their owners successful in
survival and reproduction are the ones that get passed on. (Nothing
succeeds like success). Survival and reproduction are the "ends" of
Evolution; the "means" are the traits themselves, the ones the genes
code for. In the case of the evolution of BEHAVIOURAL tendencies or
psychological traits, the distal (ultimate) causes of the
behaviour are the (evolotionary) ends and the proximal causes of the
behaviour are the (psychological) means. The proximal cause is the means
to the distal end.

Biologists often also speak about proximal vs. distal (ultimate)
EXPLANATION: Why do I eat? Proximally, because I feel hungry, I feel the
urge to eat, and it feels better to have eaten; distally, it is because
such tendencies led to better survival and reproduction than
indifference to food in my ancestors.

> 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.

Language probably started with our species, but did cognition? Don't
other species have minds?

> 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.

(Causes IN evolution, not causes OF evolution.)

It is better to speak of specific cognitive mechanisms, ones generating
specific capacities, rather than "cognition" in general in this context.
Cognition surely preceded the emergence of our own species. We just
evolved certain specific cognitive capacities, such as language and

But remember cognition is proximal: all of its components evolved as
means to various distal ends. Having evolved, cognition also became a
bit of a "law unto itself": Once you evolve the ability to count (and to
dominate), you can bully people eating only on odd-numbered days.
That's all proximal. It makes no sense to ask about the adaptive value
of eating on odd-numbered days, and what its distal cause might have
been. Its distal cause was just whatever gave us the ability to count.
The rest was all cultural, and proximal.

> 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).

Proximal causes are not all social; eating when you're hungry is a
proximal cause too, even if no one else is around...

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