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ultimate causeultimate Ursache (ger.)

  • The cause of a biological phenomenon that refers to its phylogenetic origin and adaptive value.
    function proximate cause
    In cold and temperate climates it is usually clear that the season adopted allows the young to grow up in favourable climatic conditions, and one may say that in a sense these conditions are the ultimate cause of the breeding season at that particular time.
    Baker, J.R. (1938). The evolution of breeding seasons. In: de Beer, G.R. (ed.). Evolution. Essays on Aspects of Evolutionary Biology, 161-177: 162.

    Now, if we look over the four causations of the migration of this bird [i.e. the warbler] once more we can readily see that there is an immediate set of causes of the migration, consisting of the physiological condition of the bird interacting with photoperiodicity and drop in temperature. We might call these the proximate causes of migration. The other two causes, the lack of food during winter and the genetic disposition of the bird, are the ultimate causes.

    Mayr, E. (1961). Cause and effect in biology. Science 134, 1501-1506: 1503.

    Just as the need for ultimate (in addition to proximate) explanations protects biology from being reduced to molecular biology and finally to chemistry and physics, and as the need for ultimate explanations thus ensures the autonomy of biology, so too it ensures the autonomy of philosophy of biology.
    Beatty, J. (1994). The proximate/ultimate distinction in the multiple careers of Ernst Mayr. Biol. Philos. 9, 333-356: 352.
    Proximate explanations answer causal questions of individuals and the ultimate explanations answer questions about the prevalence and maintenance of traits in a population.

    Ariew, A. (2003). Ernst Mayr’s ›ultimate/proximate‹ distinction reconsidered and reconstructed. Biol. Philos. 18, 553-565: 559.