Re: Proximal Vs. Distal (Ultimate) Causes

From: HARNAD Stevan (
Date: Tue Jun 04 1996 - 20:10:03 BST

> From: "Dixon, J.C." <>
> Date: Fri, 24 May 1996 11:28:26 +0100 (BST)
> The distal causes are the original distant causative factors, in the
> original environment. Proximal causes can be considered as current
> causative factors, which include the conscious mind and it's
> influence.

Causes of what? Make sure your reply is informative to kid-sib.

> One way in which these two causes can be compared is in the
> case of eating. For example the distal causes involved in eating, are
> eating for survival which is the original reason, whereas the proximal
> reasons are eating because the food tastes nice. From this example, you
> can see that the distal causes are based on survival, they are from
> Darwinian theories and proximal causes are 'here and now' factors.

The distal story should go more like this: Something an organism DOES
(because we are talking mainly about behaviour here, rather than
anatomy) helps it to survive and reproduce better. If (and only if) that
behavioural inclination or capacity is genetically coded, it will be
passed on successfully to offspring. If others, without the inclination
survive and reproduce less well, then the next generation will contain
more of those who have the genes that cause this inclination.

> An example of these two causes in evolution is the case of children and
> sugar. Distal causes in this example is when sugar was hard to obtain
> the children with a taste for sugar would find it and eat it. However
> now there is plenty of sugar available, people eat the sugar. The
> adverse effects of sugar is rotten teeth and obesity. As these are not
> fatal factors, the gene which codes for the liking of sugar is passed
> on to following generations. So the apetite for sugar can be considered
> as a means to an end.

A special fondness for sugar, especially in children, in an environment
where sugar is rare, would lead to better survival because of the
energy the sugar gives to flee from predators. Children who were less
fond of sugar, and did not eat all they could get on the rare time they
chanced upon it, would be at a disadvantage, and the "sweet-tooth"
tendency would be passed on.

Now, if you ask why children today eat so much candy, the PROXIMAL cause
is that it tastes good to them; the proximal cause was ALWAYS the reason
children ate sugar. The distal cause was that it gave children with that
tendency and advantage over children without it IN THE ORIGINAL
ENVIRONMENT (the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, EEA), where
sugar was still rare. It was this survival advantage of high sugar
consumption in an environment where sugar was rare that was the distal
cause of sugar-preference, both then and now. The proximal cause is a
MEANS and the distal (or ultimate) cause is an end.

Psychological mechanisms are all proximal mechanisms; the forces that
shaped them when they were adaptive are the distal mechanisms.

Cognition works similarly. In the EEA, our cognitive capacities (our
capacity to categorise, to reason, to speak) conferred an advantage on
those who had them; they were a means to the distal Darwinian end of
survival and reproduction. But just as a child eats candy because it
tastes good, not because it thinks it's good for survival or
reproduction, so we speak because it feels good, and we reason (to the
extent we reason) because it feels right, not because we think doing so
will help us survive and reproduce. And just as in the present
environment, because of its overplentiful sugar supply, the "sweet
tooth" has been dissociated from the original end toward which it had
been the means in the EEA, so cognition, and many of the things we do
with our minds, are no longer associated with the distal ends toward
which they had once been the proximal means in the EEA.

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