There is a divide within the biological sciences, those that are concerned with proximal causes and those concerned with ultimate causes. For every question in biology there are two answers.
Ultimate causes have to do mostly with the “why?”s. Why was this structure selected for? But not always. What advantage did this gene give to the organism? Do synonymous mutations give a selection advantage?
Proximal causes have mostly “how” questions. How does this protein work? How does a cell cycle check point function? How does this synonymous mutation affect protein folding?
Another way of thinking about these two views is that ultimate causes have to do with evolution and proximal causes have to do with the nitty gritty day-to-day operations. Ultimate questions involve intention or teleology and proximal questions have to do with direct, bouncing billiard ball like causation.
Any subject or object that stems from a biological organism will have these two types of questions. So for example a car arose from human needs and engineering. You can ask ultimate and proximal questions for its function. For example the blinker or flasher. The “proximal” explanation for blinkers, or the answer to the “how” question, will involve a lever connected to a circuit and the heating of a light generating filament. You hit the level and a periodic current generates light from a filament with a certain on/off interval. There you’ve explained its proximal function. The “ultimate” explanation, or the answer to the why question will involve the intention of the driver. A blinker or flasher is used by the conductor to signal neighboring vehicle drivers that he/she wishes to switch lanes or make a turn. The ability to signal fellow conductors prevents accidents and facilitates a speedier commute.
Within other realms, such as physics, geology and chemistry, teleological questions are just speculation and do not have any sound basis. Yes some will be hurt by that statement, but teleology, or intention can only arise if a system has some mechanism to generate intention. That system is evolution. Evolution itself can be explained on a proximal level. No such bridge from proximal causation to teleological causation exists outside of biological system and their derivatives such as nests, cars, culture, economies etc.
One further note. You will notice that most biology blogs, culture warriors and science reporting about the biological sciences have tro do with ultimate causation. Why are things the way they are. However my blog has lots of nitty gritty stuff. How does this work and so on. Well it would seem that although the vast majority of biological scientists study proximal questions within biology, many more bloggers and science reporters are concerned with ultimate questions. It’s a shame because right now we are in the midst of a revolution. Proximal biology is advancing so fast it is hard to keep up even within my own field. The beauty of proximal biology is that the cell is full of neat and interesting little toys and devices. Ironically evolution is a diversification machine. Through the process of evolution, genes that encoded machines multiplied and differentiated from each other to create all the neat contraptions in the cell. All that biological “mush” hiding in each cell, that “force vitae”, we’re piecing the inner most mechanisms of life right now! And despite all of the brilliant researchers out there, no one knows what we will find next. No amount of ultimate thinking can currently predict or deduce how cells maintain homeostasis. We are trying. Hence systems biology and other such valiant attempts.
So I encourage all those out there who are investigating all the nitty gritty stuff within the cell, come out and share your thoughts, I would love to read your ideas and your insights.
[Next up: how mushy religious thinking once dominated both proximal and ultimate questions in biology has totally lost the proximal war of ideas.]