Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 21, Issue 2, pp 155–188

Innateness and the Sciences

Area review

DOI: 10.1007/s10539-005-5144-0

Cite this article as:
Mameli, M. & Bateson, P. Biol Philos (2006) 21: 155. doi:10.1007/s10539-005-5144-0


The concept of innateness is a part of folk wisdom but is also used by biologists and cognitive scientists. This concept has a legitimate role to play in science only if the colloquial usage relates to a coherent body of evidence. We examine many different candidates for the post of scientific successor of the folk concept of innateness. We argue that none of these candidates is entirely satisfactory. Some of the candidates are more interesting and useful than others, but the interesting candidates are not equivalent to each other and the empirical and evidential relations between them are far from clear. Researchers have treated the various scientific notions that capture some aspect of the folk concept of innateness as equivalent to each other or at least as tracking properties that are strongly correlated with each other. But whether these correlations exist is an empirical issue. This empirical issue has not been thoroughly investigated because in the attempt to create a bridge between the folk view and their theories, researchers have often assumed that the properties must somehow cluster. Rather than making further attempts to import the folk concept of innateness into the sciences, efforts should now be made to focus on the empirical questions raised by the debates and pave the way to a better way of studying the development of living organisms. Such empirical questions must be answered before it can be decided whether a good scientific successor – in the form of a concept that refers to a collection of biologically significant properties that tend to co-occur – can be identified or whether the concept of innateness deserves no place in science.


AdaptationDevelopmental canalizationDevelopmental plasticityEvolutionary psychologyGenesInnatenessInstinctLearningNatural selection

Copyright information

© Springer 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.King’s CollegeCambridgeUK
  2. 2.Subdepartment of Animal BehaviourUniversity of CambridgeMadingley, CambridgeUK