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The Four Areas of Biology

Randolph Nesse
May 1, 2000

Based on Tinbergen,1 Mayr, 2 and others

The Four Two Different Objects of Explanation

Areas of Developmental/Historical Single Form

Biology Explanation of current form in

terms of a sequence
Explanation of one form of a

Ontogeny Mechanism
Two Different Kinds of Questions

Proximate Description of an organisms Description of an organisms

development, from DNA code to structure and how its
Explains how organisms the forms of different life stages mechanisms work
work by describing their
structures and Developmental explanations Mechanistic explanations
mechanisms and their for sequential changes in for what an organisms structures
ontogeny individuals across the lifespan are like and how they work

Evolutionary Phylogeny Adaptation

Explains why organisms Description of the history of a Explanation for the
are the way they are by species as reconstructed from its characteristics of a species based
describing how selection fossil precursors and DNA on how they give a selective
shaped current forms and evidence advantage
their phylogeny
Phylogenetic explanations
for sequential changes in a Evolutionary explanations
species across time for why an organism is the way it

1. Tinbergen, N., On the aims and methods of ethology. Zeitschrift fur Tierpsychologie, 1963. 20:
p. 410-463.
2. Mayr, E., The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance. 1982,
Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.