Proximate Explanations Versus Ultimate Explanations

An important point about evolutionary explanations is the philosophical distinction between proximate and ultimate explanations. Take sex, for example. Do humans have sex because it feels good or in order to have children? Most sexual intercourse in current society probably has very little to do with actual procreation; on the contrary, there are many birth control methods available to make it possible to have sex without this resulting in a pregnancy. Despite the fact that protected sex happens “because” it feels good, the evolutionary explanation of sexual intercourse is “because” of procreation. This is where the crucial distinction between proximate and ultimate explanations comes into play. A proximate explanation is the explanation that is closest to the event that is to be explained. The higher, ultimate explanation is instead the deeper reason for why something happened.

-- Patrik Lindenfors , Birgitta S. Tullberg

from "Evolutionary Aspects of Aggression: The Importance of Sexual Selection"

Quoted on Wed Dec 21st, 2011