Strong reciprocity (SR) has recently been subject to heated debate. In this debate, the “West camp” (West et al. in Evol Hum Behav 32(4):231–262, 2011), which is critical of the case for SR, and the “Laland camp” (Laland et al. in Science, 334(6062):1512–1516, 2011, Biol Philos 28(5):719–745, 2013), which is sympathetic to the case of SR, seem to take diametrically opposed positions. The West camp criticizes advocates of SR for conflating proximate and ultimate causation. SR is said to be a proximate mechanism that is put forward by its advocates as an ultimate explanation of human cooperation. The West camp thus accuses advocates of SR for not heeding Mayr’s original distinction between ultimate and proximate causation. The Laland camp praises advocates of SR for revising Mayr’s distinction. Advocates of SR are said to replace Mayr’s uni-directional view on the relation between ultimate and proximate causes by the bi-directional one of reciprocal causation. The paper argues that both the West camp and the Laland camp misrepresent what advocates of SR are up to. The West camp is right that SR is a proximate cause of human cooperation. But rather than putting forward SR as an ultimate explanation, as the West camp argues, advocates of SR believe that SR itself is in need of ultimate explanation. Advocates of SR tend to take gene-culture co-evolutionary theory as the correct meta-theoretical framework for advancing ultimate explanations of SR. Appearances notwithstanding, gene-culture coevolutionary theory does not imply Laland et al.’s notion of reciprocal causation. “Reciprocal causation” suggests that proximate and ultimate causes interact simultaneously, while advocates of SR assume that they interact sequentially. I end by arguing that the best way to understand the debate is by disambiguating Mayr’s ultimate-proximate distinction. I propose to reserve “ultimate” and “proximate” for different sorts of explanations, and to use other terms for distinguishing different kinds of causes and different parts of the total causal chain producing behavior.

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History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences

Vromen, J. (2017). Ultimate and proximate explanations of strong reciprocity. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 39(3). doi:10.1007/s40656-017-0151-4