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Perspect Psychol Sci. 2011 Jan;6(1):38-47. doi: 10.1177/1745691610393528. Epub 2011 Feb 3.

Evolutionary Theory and the Ultimate-Proximate Distinction in the Human Behavioral Sciences.

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School of Psychology, Philosophy and Language Sciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland
School of Psychology, University of East London, London, England Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science, London School of Economics, London, England.
Department of Zoology, Oxford University, Oxford, England.


To properly understand behavior, we must obtain both ultimate and proximate explanations. Put briefly, ultimate explanations are concerned with why a behavior exists, and proximate explanations are concerned with how it works. These two types of explanation are complementary and the distinction is critical to evolutionary explanation. We are concerned that they have become conflated in some areas of the evolutionary literature on human behavior. This article brings attention to these issues. We focus on three specific areas: the evolution of cooperation, transmitted culture, and epigenetics. We do this to avoid confusion and wasted effort-dangers that are particularly acute in interdisciplinary research. Throughout this article, we suggest ways in which misunderstanding may be avoided in the future.


cooperation; culture; epigenetics; evolution; ultimate–proximate


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