Some philosophy is just common sense. Some is abstruse, recondite, and technically challenging. But when employed against common sense, such as to support the belief that everything came from nothing, philosophy can get downright weird.
Old moat’s gotta go: Ernst Mayr was a key figure in 20th century evolutionary theory. His method of evolutionary explanation was to create a philosophical distinction between proximate causation and ultimate causation. Why does the male peacock grow an elaborate tail? Because peahens like it. It’s not necessary, he thought, to explain the development of the peacock tail from an embryo to understand why evolution selected the male’s tail. Five guys writing in Science this week think his distinction is hindering progress.1 A moat can keep the bad guys out, but also hem the good guys in. Here’s how they wrote about the situation:
Fifty years ago, Ernst Mayr published a hugely influential paper on the nature of causation in biology, in which he distinguished between proximate and ultimate causes. Mayr equated proximate causation with immediate factors (for example, physiology) and ultimate causation with evolutionary explanations (for example, natural selection). He argued that proximate and ultimate causes addressed different questions and were not alternatives. Mayr’s account of causation remains widely accepted today, with both positive and negative ramifications. Several current debates in biology (for example, over evolution and development, niche construction, cooperation, and the evolution of language) are linked by a common axis of acceptance/rejection of Mayr’s model of causation. We argue that Mayr’s formulation has acted to stabilize the dominant evolutionary paradigm against change but may now hamper progress in the biological sciences.
The five guys want to be able to extend evolutionary storytelling to include plots about niche construction, cultural evolution and other things. The old gray Mayr’s principle ain’t what it used to be. Fill in the moat and get the old goat off the drawbridge, where he’s blocking progress. “The commonalities of the above debates also raise rich issues concerning the history and philosophy of science, for instance, over how conceptual frameworks channel thinking and hinder paradigm shifts,” they said with homage to Kuhn. “It would seem that the manner in which biologists think about causality has acted like a meta-theoretical conceptual framework to stabilize the dominant scientific paradigm.”….
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