What does Jared Diamond mean by ultimate and proximate causes?
When Jared Diamond talks about ultimate and proximate causes in Guns, Germs, and Steel, he is talking about causes that happened a long time ago and causes that happened closer in time to the events being explained. Put differently, he is talking about causes that led directly to a result (proximate cause) and causes that led to those proximate causes.
Let us think about this in terms of a sports team. Let’s say that the volleyball team that I coach lost a match. I could say that we lost because we kept serving out and because our hitters could not get any kills. Those would be proximate causes because that is what led directly to our loss. But then we would need to ask why those things happened. Maybe our serving was bad because the players do not concentrate while practicing. Maybe our hitting was bad because our school does not have many tall girls and so we are trying to use short girls as hitters. These are causes that happened before the night of the match, but which caused us to have problems on that night.
This is what Diamond means by proximate causes and ultimate causes. Some causes, like the Europeans’ possession of guns, germs, and steel, were the things that directly caused them to have power. Other causes, like having lots of domesticable plants and animals and living on a land mass with a long east-west axis were ultimate causes that led to the Europeans having the guns, germs, and steel.
Very early in the book, Diamond makes it clear that he is searching for "ultimate causes" for why different societies developed in different ways. These ultimate causes are distinguished from "proximate causes," which, he argues, only provide a superficial explanation. For example, using a very prominent example from Guns, Germs, and Steel, the Spanish conquistadores conquered the Inca because they had better weapons, deadly germs, and far better information about their opponents than the other way around. But these are proximate factors that immediately gave the Spaniards an immediate advantage in the conflict. Diamond argues that these proximate factors can be understood by other, deeper, factors. For instance, because of geographical factors, agriculture had developed much earlier in Eurasia, including the Iberian peninsula than in South America. Europeans also lived in closer proximity to domesticated animals, which caused them to develop many of the deadly diseases that wreaked havoc among Indians. Settled agriculture also led to the development of the technologies that gave Europeans such a marked advantage. One of the proximate causes for conquest, then, was the development of steel weapons. But what allowed Europeans to develop such technologies? The ultimate cause for this, Diamond says, is geographical.
In the prologue, Diamond differentiates between the proximate and ultimate causes of why Europe developed differently than other areas of the world and why Europeans were able to dominate other people. A proximate or initial analysis identifies the immediate causes for European domination—guns, germs, and steel. That is, guns, infectious diseases, and steel tools enabled Europeans to conquer others.
However, understanding the ultimate causes of European domination involves looking at why Europeans were able to develop the technology that resulted in guns, infectious diseases that they were immune to, and steel tools before others did. An analysis of ultimate causes is a secondary analysis. An analysis of proximate causes looks at the immediate weapons or means of European conquest, but it is only an analysis of the ultimate causes that answers the more complicated question of what Europe had in place that facilitated this kind of technological development in the first place. An analysis of ultimate causes is a way of understanding how the proximate causes developed.