Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Something’s Fishy: Proximate and Ultimate Explanations in Evolutionary Leadership Theory (Rough Draft)

By its very nature, Evolutionary Leadership Theory (ELT) must draw input from many different disciplines; most notably the biological sciences (evolutionary biology, primatology, neurology, genetics etc.) and the social sciences (psychology, sociology, history, political science, etc.). However, biosocial interdisciplinary raises a thorny theoretical question: Under ELT, how do the traditional social sciences relate to the biological sciences? In order to advance biosocial interdisciplinarity, many ELT scholars have retooled Ernst Mayr’s original “ultimate-proximate distinction” and, thereby, differentiate between Proximate Leadership Theories and Ultimate Leadership Theories. This essay will explore whether that re-adaptation sheds much light on the evolution of human leadership and followership.  

Let me begin by pointing out that since the 1960s, there has been longstanding philosophical debate over the nature and function of scientific theories, causal mechanisms, and scientific explanations. So most of what I’ll say today, is about resuscitating unresolved issues in light of ELT.

Some psychologists argue that the proximate-ultimate distinction is central to all evolutionary theories of human behavior. (Scott-Phillips et. al., 2011).  It was first introduced in 1961 by Ernst Mayr, in his essay “Cause and Effect in Biology,” which attempted to sort out the role that various biologically-based disciplines play in explaining biological traits. His strategy was to differentiate between proximate explanations based on proximate theories generated by functional biologists (esp. physiological explanations) and ultimate explanations based on ultimate theories produced by evolutionary biologists (esp. natural selection). From the very beginning his distinction involved four overlapping questions: What are biological explanations and how do they compare to explanations in other scientific disciplines? What is the nature of causality (causal mechanisms) as it is employed in the biological sciences as compared to other natural sciences? What are biological theories and how do they compare to other scientific theories? And finally, how do causal theories shape biological explanations and/or other scientific explanations? Hence, we have complex issues involving the nature of scientific explanations, scientific theories, and causal theories in particular.      

According to Mayr, all scientific theories attempt to answer certain kinds of discipline-specific questions. In biology, proximate theories address “how” questions by identifying onto genic causal mechanisms which act upon individual organisms to produce behavior. These mechanisms explain “how” specific traits generate certain behaviors. Thus proximate mechanisms most often include the physiology that underlies genetic causation, hormonal causation, neuronal causation, or even the physiological basis of specific brain modules. At the proximate level, Mayr explained the “how” in terms of linear, unidirectional causal chains, where causes always precede effects over time within relatively closed systems.

Mayr also acknowledged that although biologists (as a matter of fact) explore not only “how” traits are caused by physiological mechanisms, but also “why.” Why questions, according to Mayr, imply historical analysis. Therefore, evolutionary biologists look back at the emergence of any given trait, and explain why it emerged. In biology, “why questions” are answered via Darwinian Evolutionary Theory. Mayr identified Natural Selection as the ultimate phyllo genic mechanism for addressing why questions. Therefore ultimate explanations entail gathering of historical information about the environmental conditions that originally selected that specific trait over other possible traits, and whether that original environment has remained stable or whether it has evolved.  

Mayr’s original essay focused on explaining the “how” and “why” of the migration of a specific species of birds, warblers. Thus, he observed that one group of ornithologists might seek to explain “how” (and “when”) that specific species of birds migrates, while another group might explain “why” those causal mechanisms originally emerged at a specific time and place (in the past); and/or, whether those mechanisms still contribute to the survival of that species (in the present or future).        

Critics of Mayr’s original distinction now question whether the complete explanation of the migration of one species of birds (both proximate and ultimate explanations), sheds much (if any) light on the evolution of the migratory behavior of other organisms; including human migration via leadership and followership.

The early proximate theories of leadership focused exclusively on identifying and describing the specific traits, behaviors, skills, and/or knowledge possessed by individual leaders. However, Political Science and Leadership Studies have been long-dominated by the social sciences, and therefore, still focus on the proximate social mechanisms that produce leaders, often without reference to followers or biology. Thus, until recently Leadership Studies has treated leadership behavior as learned behaviors, transmitted within and between generations via imitation, teaching, and learning. In contrast, ELT now seeks to identify, not only the social causation of leadership behavior, but also the proximate biological mechanisms that underlie those traits, behaviors, skills, and/or knowledge of both leaders and followers.

Once identified, many proximate theorists seek to “reduce” macrocosmic mechanisms to microcosmic mechanisms.  For example, ELT scientists attempt to proximately explain male political behavior by reducing that behavior it to microcosmic material mechanisms as evident within distinctive male brains, the presence of Y chromosomes and/or testosterone. Ultimate leadership theorists, however, must ask “why” males today tend to lead, based on the environmental and social conditions present during the Pleistocene Era and whether those conditions are still shape leadership and followership in the present.  

According to ELT scholars, such as van Vugt, political leaders and followers within all social species “emerge” out of various natural environmental contexts. (van Vugt 2006, 2008, and 2012) ELT scientists agree that the political leadership preferences of followers are largely automatic and non-conscious; often forged on the basis of facial cues of leaders that “signal” health and intelligence. (Spisak, 2014) Thus, based on the presence (or absence) of those “body signals,” ELT scientists can now explain, predict, and (to a certain degree) control who wins most democratic elections, regardless of the so-called campaign issues.  However, what’s missing here is the answer to the ultimate “why question;” that is: Why do political followers today tend to base their leadership preferences on non-cognitive “body signals,” given the fact that there is no evidence to suggest that, today, ‘tall, dark, and handsome’ male leaders’ are “better leaders” than “short, light-skinned, ugly” males; or even females?

Any Ultimate Theory of Leadership must answer those elusive “why questions.” Evolutionary biologists answer all “why questions” in terms of ultimate function (or purpose) via Darwinian natural selection. Thus, leader-follower relationships are viewed as biological adaptations that have advanced the long-term (and/or short-term) survival of genes, individual organisms, and/or groups of organisms living under various environmental conditions at various times and places. 

But the distinction between proximate and ultimate theories (and explanations) remains controversial. Much recent debate focuses on the nature of teleology and/or teleological explanations in biology. (Depew 20015; Auletta, Colage, and Ambrosio 2015 ).  Other critics object to the use of the ambiguous term “ultimate.” Scientists who oppose “natural law theory” (natural=good) argue that Darwinian “survival of the fittest” surreptitiously replaced “divine purpose” with “natural purpose.” Other critics ask more basic questions such as: “How proximate is proximate?” and “How ultimate is ultimate?” If proximate theories are subject to multiple levels of analysis, then why must ultimate theories identify one, single (ultimate) function? Why value the ultimate survival of one population over another? This line of reasoning also raises some pesky “prescriptive” questions. Suppose the survival of life on earth is (in fact) contingent upon the extinction of the human species? Would the long-term survival of other mammals, other primates, or even all “life on earth” morally justify global human genocide?

While the ultimate-proximate distinction remains open to scholarly debate, ELT scholars argue that it offers a promising long-term strategy for the reconciliation of biological and social sciences, and perhaps even serves as the foundation for the emergence of a truly interdisciplinary science of political leadership. So although the ultimate-proximate distinction raises many issues, most biologists agree that a complete understanding of human behavior requires both. (Scott-Phillips, 2011) However, those of us engaged in ELT might also ask whether Mayr’s original analysis, based on the migration of one species of birds, really sheds much light on the evolution of more complex forms of human behavior, most notably behavior generated by co-evolutionary traits (including bio-cultural co-evolutionary) and traits that evolve on the basis of non-linear feedback causation (A causes behavioral changes in B, and B causes behavioral changes in A); as evident in leader-follower relationships.  And finally, we might also explore whether cultural evolution is cause or effect human behavior? And whether, cultural evolution is the product of proximate causation, ultimate causation, or both? In the case of contemporary human migration, it is hard to generate any explanation apart from technological evolution; especially communication technology (cell phones, mass media etc.) and travel technology (planes, automobiles, trains etc.) Perhaps, cultural evolution answers at least some “how” and “why” questions. In conclusion, for ELT, there is a lot work yet to be done on whether the original proximate-ultimate distinction sheds much light on human leader-follower relationships.     


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 Scott-Phillips, T. C.; Dickins T.E. & West, S.A. 2011. Evolutionary theory and the ultimate-proximate distinction. Perspectives on Psychological Science 6, 38-47.  

Spisak, B. R.; Blaker, N.M.; Lefevre, C.E.; Moore, F.R.; & Krebbers, K.F.B. 2014.  A face for all seasons: searching for context-specific leadership traits and discovering a general preference for perceived health,  Human Neuroscience 8, 1-9.

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 van Vugt, M. 2012. The nature in leadership: evolutionary, biological, and social neuroscience perspectives’ (in)  Day, D.D & Antonakis J. (eds), The Nature of Leadership, ( 2nd ed.) Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington DC: Sage Publications, 141-178.