Causation and models of disease in epidemiology

Stud Hist Philos Biol Biomed Sci. 2009 Dec;40(4):302-11. doi: 10.1016/j.shpsc.2009.09.006. Epub 2009 Oct 31.


Nineteenth-century medical advances were entwined with a conceptual innovation: the idea that many cases of disease which were previously thought to have diverse causes could be explained by the action of a single kind of cause, for example a certain bacterial or parasitic infestation. The focus of modern epidemiology, however, is on chronic non-communicable diseases, which frequently do not seem to be attributable to any single causal factor. This paper is an effort to resolve the resulting tension. The paper criticises the monocausal model of disease, so successful in the nineteenth century. It also argues that a multifactorial model of disease can only be satisfactory if it amounts to more than a mere rejection of the monocausal model. A third alternative, the contrastive model, is proposed and defended on the grounds that it links the notions of disease and of general explanation, while avoiding the philosophical naiveties and practical difficulties of the monocausal model.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Causality*
  • Disease / etiology*
  • Epidemiology*
  • History, 19th Century
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological*