Re: Proximal Vs. Distal (Ultimate) Causes

From: HARNAD Stevan (
Date: Wed Jun 05 1996 - 18:28:08 BST

> From: "Haseldine, Philip" <>
> Date: Sat, 25 May 1996 15:04:57 +0100 (BST)
> Proximal causes are those which are purely psychological.

If you're studying psychology, they're psychological; but if you're
studying anatomy, they're anatomical: (The issue is much more trivial
with anatomy: The proximal cause that a giraffe can reach high branches
is that it has a long neck; the distal cause is that ancestors with
longer necks survived and reproduced better than those without, because
they could reach food that other animals could not reach.)

> It is when we
> do things not because we believe that it will benefit our blood line
> and enable "good" genes to be passed on (i.e. this thought will not be
> prevalent in our minds), but simply because we like doing it.

Even if we do things to benefit our bloodline, it's proximal. The distal
bit is always the one where successful genes are selected over
unsuccessful ones because they happen to code for a more successful trait.
Proximal mechanisms are the means, distal ones are the end -- or at
least WERE the end, in the original environment or EEA. There MIGHT be a
distal story to be told about those who fretted more about their
bloodlines being more successful at passing on their genes than those
who didn't, but it's unlikely, because in the EEA (and even in some
contemporary aboriginal cultures) people don't even know the connection
between sex, mating and procreation. So it's hard to imagine that, once
they learn it, there is an old Darwinian yearning waiting there to
express itself.

> In the
> ancient history of mankind, groups of humans may well have enjoyed
> playing various games involving movement and physical contact.

If they ENJOYED it, that's already proximal. If you think that had a
specific distal cause, you have to say how it made them pass on their
genes more successfully than those who did not enjoy playing games.

> Over a
> course of time, this interaction and use of muscles, etc., will have
> made the most enthusiastic participants obtain more athletic physiques,
> and perhaps therefore more attractive to the opposite sex, through
> social interaction also - e.g. talking about "victories" over fellow
> members of the tribe.

WHY is this more attractive to the opposite sex? You are taking it all
for granted! If you are explaining distally, you need to give the
Darwinian story. There is PERHAPS a direct Darwinian story that might go
like this: Those who happened to like sports more, trained more, got
stronger and faster, and then, in conflict and war, survived more, hence
passed on their genetic tendency to like sports.

Your own explanation is mixing up distal and proximal left and right...
Fondness for sports and attraction to athletic physiques is proximal,
hence it requires a distal explanation. It is not itself a distal

> Eventually, the genes of having attractive,
> athletic bodies would be passed on to certain members of the local
> group of humans, and having this property would more often than not
> assist in finding a mate to reproduce with.

As you have described it in this paragraph and the prior one, the
"causal" mechanism is entirely circular: You already STIPULATED that it
was found more attractive. You need to find the distal cause of that
proximal attractiveness. Otherwise it's like assuming that the distal
cause of our "sweet tooth" is that sugar tastes good!

> Distal causes are those to do with Darwinian evolution in the original
> environment - they are the "ultimate", underlying causes, to do with
> survival of the race,

Not the race: the selfish genes...

> and although we may not realise that these
> are the causes ultimately we wish to fulfill more than anything else,
> so they are.

Not clear to kid-sib what this means...

> Cognitive causes are not distal causes; cognition is a
> proximal mechanism in that we like to be aware of our surroundings and
> have a vast array of experiences,from which we can eventually draw good
> memories.

Again not clear what this means.

> It acts as a means to an end, but the distal reasons for
> having these mechanisms in the first place rule when you look at the
> history of mankind as a whole.

You have not yet shown you understand what the distal causes really are.

> The means to ancient ends stay with us
> today,and although it may not dawn on us too brightly, we are maybe not
> that far removed from our ancient origins as we may think.

Too many words; you need to sort out the proximal/distal distinction
more clearly, and THEN try to relate it to cognition.

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