Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Proximate Cause is not Ultimate Cause

Writes Jared Diamond, in The Third Chimpanzee:
I could have warned Professor Presbury that his myopic obsession with proximate causation would lead him astray.

Let's unpack this!

Diamond is talking about ultimate causation v. proximate causation in terms of aging. A chemical or molecular biologist, he says, would answer the question "Why do skunks smell bad?" with "Because they secrete chemical compounds with certain particular molecular structures..." (proximate causation)

While, he says, the evolutionary biologist would say "Because the skunk would be easy victims for predators if they didn't defend themselves with bad smells." (ultimate causation)


It seems to me that these are answers to two different questions. Further, that one of them is "meta." I chose to work in the field of emotional intelligence because it is "meta" - it covers and subsumes many other fields, such as leadership, communication, etc.

OK. So it seems to me that the question answered by proximate causation is "How does the skunk do this 'smelling bad'?" and the question answered by ultimate causation is "Why does the skunk emit an odor?"

It is interesting to know the mechanism -- the emission of a bad odor. It is also interesting to know the reason or purpose -- self-defense.

Diamond adds that "the chemist and the evolutionary biologist would each dismiss the other's answer as not being 'the real explanation.'"

And this is where communication goes afoul. And why emotional intelligence is META. As Jared says, back to our topic, or his topic, of aging -- "Aging can't be understood unless we seek both explanations simultaneously."

Because these things can be looked at as left-brain and right-brained, or whole-brained. Left-brained dominant people (LBDP) tend to answer questions with details and lists.

Querant: How can I be a good leader?

LBDP: Stand tall. Talk loud and low. Maintain eye contact 5 seconds, then move eyes sideways, never down.

My Response: A leader is someone who others want to follow. You want to follow someone because they are trustworthy, appear to know more, have confidence ... Good leaders are generally ... (list traits)

You see the difference.

if you want to learn something you need to know the reason why the details that you observe work to create the whole picture. After all, there are very tall people who are not leaders. Very big people, loud and low-talking people. Would you want to follow Mike Tyson's lead?

Some people prefer to know "why" first. Then they can digest the "details". I don't see how you can 'learn' something like 'leadership' by just following a list. Do you think so? Share your thoughts.

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