In today’s issue of Science, there is an interesting new paper by philosophers of biology Kevin Laland, Kim Sterelny, John Odling-Smee, William Hoppitt and Tobias Uller. In it, the authors argue that the sharp dichotomy between Proximate and Ultimate questions as stated by Mayr and accepted by many (but not all) biologists may not be as useful any more (while acknowledging it was useful at the time, if nothing else to settle the old disputes stemming from mutual misunderstandings as to what constitutes ‘explanation’ in biology).
In science, as in many other areas, words matter. Words are metaphors that put us in a particular frame of mind. Different frames of mind guide different approaches to research questions. Thus, re-evaluating scientific metaphors as used by researchers is an important exercise that all fields should do every now and then (like I did for my field yesterday).
The distinction between Proximate and Ultimate questions, especially in the strong version as envisioned by Mayr, suggests a uni-directional causation of biological traits – genes code for traits. Once developed in the individuals, the traits become visible to natural selection and can be selected for or against. The causation always flows from Proximate to Ultimate domain.