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Evolutionary theory and the ultimate-proximate distinction in the human behavioral sciences

Scott-Phillips, T. C., Dickins, T. E. and West, S. A. (2011) Evolutionary theory and the ultimate-proximate distinction in the human behavioral sciences. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6 (1). pp. 38-47. ISSN 1745-6916

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Identification Number: 10.1177/1745691610393528


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.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2014 The Author
Divisions: CPNSS
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
Date Deposited: 05 Jan 2015 11:53
Last Modified: 16 Jul 2024 02:57
Funders: Economic and Social Research Council of Great Britain, Leverhulme Trust, European Union, Royal Society

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