Evolutionary Theory and the Ultimate–Proximate Distinction in the Human Behavioral Sciences
The January issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science publishes a paper by Thomas Scott-Phillips, Thomas Dickins, and Stuart West entitled "Evolutionary Theory and the Ultimate-Proximate Distinction in the Human Behavioral Sciences." (also discussed here by Rob Kurzban) Although this distinction is well-known and widely used in evolutionary and cognitive approaches, the authors point out that in several areas, including the study of the evolution of cooperation, cultural transmission, and epigenetics debates are fraught with confusions between ultimate ands proximal explanations. They show, for instance, that 'strong reciprocity', as advocated by Ernst Fehr and others, often presented as a solution to the ultimate question "why do we cooperate", is only a solution about the proximal question "how do we cooperate".
Here is the abstract:
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.