Causal specificity and the instructive–permissive distinction


Calcott, B. (2017). Causal specificity and the instructive–permissive distinction. Biology & Philosophy, 32(4), 481–505. Retrieved from


I use some recent formal work on measuring causation to explore a suggestion by James Woodward: that the notion of causal specificity can clarify the distinction in biology between permissive and instructive causes. This distinction arises when a complex developmental process, such as the formation of an entire body part, can be triggered by a simple switch, such as the presence of particular protein. In such cases, the protein is said to merely induce or “permit” the developmental process, whilst the causal “instructions” for guiding that process are already prefigured within the cells.

I construct a novel model that expresses in a simple and tractable way the relevant causal structure of biological development and then use a measure of causal specificity to analyse the model. I show that the permissive-instructive distinction cannot be captured by simply contrasting the specificity of two causes as Woodward proposes, and instead introduce an alternative, hierarchical approach to analysing the interaction between two causes. The resulting analysis highlights the importance of focusing on gene regulation, rather than just the coding regions, when analysing the distinctive causal power of genes.