The question of innateness

1. Introduction

Typically, we understand innateness as the opposite of learning. This idea is deeply entrenched in scientific practice as well as in folk biology. In biology, innateness is related to other concepts such as species, adaptive change, and evolution. However, the term has also served other agendas. In politics, for instance, innateness is a tacitly necessary condition to justify the hereditary succession of many governmental systems (e.g. Kim dynasty in North Korea).

Our intuitions about the concept of innateness are so strong that it should apparently be easy to find a definition or set of properties that satisfied it. There are two requisites that any accepted definition should meet, namely: 1. As a basic rule for definitions, it should be inclusive enough to encompass all instances of traits that think of as innate (for example, that the development of said trait is somehow inescapable); and 2. It should be exclusive enough to reject all instances of learned/acquired characteristics. This second condition is known as the minimal condition (Mameli and Bateson, 2011), stemming from the fact that learning and innateness are considered to be mutually exclusive concepts.

Indeed, many attempts have been made to give an account of innateness, from the early idea that innate traits were those present at birth or caused by adaptations to the more modern attempts to identify the concept with genes and heritability. However, they have all been dismissed as insufficient by the means of compelling examples.

Currently, one of the most popular accounts is that of innateness as the robust development of traits (Waddington, 1975; Ariew, 1999). This view connects innateness with the idea of environment canalisation, i.e. the stability of certain features across a range of environments. In this essay, I will first analyse the counterexamples that opponents of this view (Griffiths et al., 2009; Mameli and Bateson, 2011) have put forward to show how the innateness-as-canalisation account does not satisfy either the two basic conditions stated above. Then, I will present two other alternatives that have been proposed to solve the problem of innateness: 1. innateness as a property cluster and 2. the dissolution of innateness altogether.

2. The canalisation account.

The concept of canalisation was originally studied by Waddington (1975) who defined it as follows.:

“[Canalisation is] the capacity to produce a particular definite end-result in spite of a certain variability both in the initial situation from which development starts and in the conditions met with during its course” (Waddington, 1975, p.99)

The concept was later adopted by Ariew (1999) and identified as the necessary and sufficient condition for innateness. In Ariew’s account, canalised (therefore, innate) traits are those which are invariable across a wide range of environments. This is a more nuanced version of the invariance account or flat curve account, which, briefly, states that innateness requires stability in all the possible environments. Here, instead, a gradient is set depending on the amount of diversity of conditions that a trait is capable of being developed in.

But being a weaker stance, how effectively can it spot out learned traits (e.g. capacities or behaviours)? Let us take an example taken from Ariew (1999). Everyone agrees that the ability to speak French is something acquired. Therefore, the amount of environments in which a human does not develop such capacity is quite large thus supporting the thesis of canalisation. On the contrary, talking itself is a relatively robust ability in human beings, hence, according to this view, it should be considered an innate capacity.

3. The case of male rat’s spinal chord nuclei

The first example put against the sufficiency of development robustness in (Griffiths et al. 2009) is taken from research on rat reproduction. Moore (1992) noticed that, to use their penises during copulation, male rats present differences in the motor neurons of their spinal cord. These differences, they showed, were caused by the additional licking of their genitals by their mothers during infancy which in turn resulted from the secretion of male pheromones in male pups. This example shows a complex causal chain that leads to the development of this sexually required trait in males, something, they argue, biologists would like to call innate (Griffiths et al., 2009). Nonetheless, they claim that, according to Ariew’s account, it wouldn’t make the mark because in this case “an environmental condition is developmentally required yet is found everywhere the system develops” (Ariew, 2006, p.10) (i.e. the mother’s licking). But to be considered innate, a trait needs to “develop independently of the environmentally condition” (ibid.). Their argument goes that if the innateness-as-canalisation account is unable to encompass such a compelling example of innateness, then it is an insufficient as a definition.

However, it appears that here Griffiths and his colleagues are fighting a straw man. In the previous section, I made an important distinction among innateness-as-robust-development accounts between invariance and canalisation. In the discussion of the example above, they use the quote in (Ariew, 2006) to present a view more similar to the invariance account. The quote did seemingly expressing that idea. However, this is a case of cherry picking. It is precisely the excessive flexibility of the idea of innateness coming in degrees (as mentioned before) that will bring a different set of problems for this account. I will analyse those questions in the next example. But in this case, this example seems to fit the pattern of innateness because the only environments in which this trait would not develop are those in which the mother is absent, or she is unable to perceive the pheromones, which is a limited set of cases.

4. The case of singing Black-Capped Chickadee

The next example they bring about is meant to show the insufficiency of innateness-as-canalisation in fulfilling condition 2, i.e. the minimal condition of incompatibility with learning. In this case (Griffiths et al. 2009) discuss the case of Black-Capped Chickadee, a species of bird in which singing is a part of the mating ritual. It constitutes a clear example of what we would identify as a product of learning: young males only acquire the capacity to sing by listening to adults. However, the trait is highly preserved, because the chances that such interaction does not happen (i.e. the youngsters not being able to witness any instance of an adult of their species singing) are minuscule. The problem for the canalization account is that if we take the definition as stated above, then it is too flexible to exclude cases where a learned ability rarely doesn’t occur. The chances left are:

i. either to accept this counter-intuitive idea that singing in those birds is an innate trait –but then the resulting concept would be at risk of being encompassing to the point of meaninglessness (or just uselessness);

ii. or to acknowledge that the notion of robustness in development is not enough to distinguish innateness from learning.

In the case that one wants to save the notion of innateness and take option ii), it immediately opens a new can of worms. Namely, if innateness is not just robustness of traits, what else is it? Paying attention to the examples may put us on track. The question is what is exactly in the rat’s case that makes us take a nativist stance while we would widely consider the bird-song example a compelling example of learned capacity? At first sight, there are many differences in the causal mechanisms of development: while rat-spine invokes pheromones and parental behaviour in response to the pheromones, bird-song only requires witnessing of adult behaviour (the potential ability to produce sounds is kept aside because it is probably a genuine case of innateness). This reflection reveals that, whether there is enough justification for it not, physiological underpinnings still bear more weight in our intuitions regarding innateness.

5. Ontology and innateness

Other attempts at defining innateness had already tried to capture this underlying causality that sets the two cases apart, e.g. by identifying innateness with the individual’s genome. For instance, Griffiths et al. (1993) conducted IQ studies on adopted children and their adoptive and biological parents from which curious pattern was observed: the IQ of children had a strong correlation with that of their biological parents. Hence, the trait was “highly heritable”. However, The mean the mean IQ of the children matched the adoptive parents’ mean, several points above the biological parents’. The conclusion was that heritability was not sufficient to consider a trait innate. As heritability, all other accounts based on a single criterion have been proven insufficient at some point. From here, many options have been proposed in regards to the ontological problem of innateness; I will briefly describe two:

1. Innateness as a property cluster. Little has been said about the ontology of the word innateness as the discussion revolved around its concept, but it certainly this raises many questions. Especially, given the heterogeneity of the concepts that have been considered under the name of innateness. (Mameli and Bateson, 2011)

The first possibility, considering innateness a property cluster, was borrowed from the discussion on the metaphysics of species concepts (Boyd, 1991) but it was an idea originally introduced by Wittgenstein in his Investigations. would entail that the term is regarded as a set of objects that i) share most (not all) properties and ii) the property missing in each of them isn’t always the same. Additionally, the description homeostatic is added to indicate that these properties have the causal function of maintaining the current state of the group.

The use of this classification would affect the concept so that for something to be considered innate it would have to meet most (but not all) the different requirements that have separately been deemed insufficient (Mameli and Bateson, 2011). The defense of this thesis requires two things: i) clear criteria for inclusion/exclusion of properties, which should not allow the accommodation of the cluster from the two perspectives. Otherwise, the debates over which traits are innate or learned cannot move forward. ii) Regarding the homeostatic character of this clusters, they also need to provide an account of the causes that raised it and how the different properties interrelate (ibid.). But if scientists and philosophers are unable to satisfy these requirements, there is a second option:

2. The dissolution of innateness. Another possibility that has been suggested (Mameli and Bateson, 2011) is to eliminate the term innateness once and for all from scientific debates. The argument goes that above mentioned heterogeneity is caused first and foremost by the mistake of calling the same name a group of distinct phenomena.

The moral is: just because the distinction nature vs. nurture, seems intuitively appealing it does not mean it is correct. To support this argument (ibid.) bring about the example of jade: after centuries of knowing jade and considering it a natural kind, mineralogy studies in the IX century showed that the gems had two distinct kinds of compositions. While the classification was corrected in mineralogy by dissolving the term jade into two different chemical categories (nephrite and jadeite), for historical reasons maybe it has not disappeared from the general public.

However, going back to the concept of innateness, we have reasons to believe that despite all these problems, the term is going to stick around for the moment. Griffith et al. (2009) mention three factors that may be providing the concept with its intuitive appeal: fixity, typicality, and teleology. I will not discuss them in detail because they exceed the scope of this paper. However, this influence should be taken into consideration.

6. Conclusion

In this essay, I have discussed the examples put against the canalisation account of innateness by Griffiths et al. (2009). In line with the thesis of these authors, I have argued that, although the concept might be broad enough to encompass all instances of innate traits, it is clearly not exclusive enough to rule out all the cases of acquired traits. From this follows the conclusion that innateness is not just the robust development of characters. From that point, I have explored the debate over the ontological status of innateness that followed the inability of finding a sufficient concept of species in Mameli and Bateson (2011).


Ariew, A. 1999 Innateness is canalization: a defense of a developmental account of innateness. In When biology meets psychology (ed. V. Hardcastle). Cambridge, UK: MIT Press.

Ariew, A. 2006: Innateness. In M. Matthen and C. Stevens (ed.), Handbook of the Philosophy of Science. Dordrecht: Elsevier.

Boyd, R. (1991). Realism, anti-foundationalism and the enthusiasm for natural kinds. Philosophy Studies, 61(1-2), pp.127-148.

Griffiths, A. J. F, Miller, J. H., Suzuki, D. J., Lewontin, R. C., Gelbart, W. M. (1993), An Introduction to Genetic Analysis. 5th edition. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company.

Griffiths, P., Machery, E. and Linquist, S. (2009). The Vernacular Concept of Innateness. Mind & Language, 24(5), pp.605-630.

Herrnstein, R. and Murray, C. (1994). The bell curve. New York: Free Press.

Mameli, M. and Bateson, P. (2011). An evaluation of the concept of innateness. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 366(1563), pp.436-443.

Moore, C. L. 1992: The role of maternal stimulation in the development of sexual behavior and its neural basis. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 662,160–77.

Waddington, C. H. 1975 The evolution of an evolutionist. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953) [2009]Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

*This work was submitted the 25th of April 2016.


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