Looking for a reason: Perspective and causality

We all have different perspectives. Sometimes our perspective is in conflict with or directly opposed to someone else’s. But sometimes what we perceive as conflict isn’t so much a difference in perspective as it is a difference in focus. When considered in proper relationship, perspectives which focus on different levels of scale can lead to new levels of understanding. In his 1961 article, Cause and Effect in Biology, Ernest Mayr described how these kind of relationship describes to two perspectives in biology, which he referred to as functional and evolutionary.

Among other things, functional and evolutionary perspectives each have their own interpretation of causality. On the one hand, “[t]he functional biologist attempts to isolate the particular component he studies, and in any given study he usually deals with a single individual, a single organ, a single cell, or a single part of a cell” (Mayr, 1961, p. 1502). The focus is on understanding proximate causes that can explain effects in an immediate context, with an emphasis on “how” or the description of a process by which something happens. By contrast, from the evolutionary perspective, “[t]here is hardly any structure or function in an organism that can be fully understood unless it is studied against [a] historical background” (Mayr, 1961, p. 1502). The focus is on understanding ultimate causes that can explain effects in a “bigger picture” context, with an emphasis on “why” or the reason that a process happens.

These perspectives look at time from different levels of scale. There are the events happening at any given moment and the immediate sphere of influences which directly contribute to those events; this is the realm of the functional. Then there is the network of personal, communal, and environmental events that have happened throughout time which indirectly contribute to current events; this is the realm of the evolutionary.

In addition to pointing out how these functionary and evolutionary perspectives are related, Mayr touches on how levels of scales inform our interpretation of causality. In some sense, our perspective affects not only what we are looking at but also what we are looking for. That is, the ways in which whatever we focus on uniquely affords and constrains what we able to see.

Mayr, E. (1961). Cause and effect in biology. Science, 134 (3489), 1501-1506.