Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 21, Issue 2, pp 155–188

Innateness and the Sciences

Area review


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.


Adaptation Developmental canalization Developmental plasticity Evolutionary psychology Genes Innateness Instinct Learning Natural selection 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Ariew, A. 1996Innateness and canalizationPhil. Sci.63S19S27(Proceedings)Google Scholar
  2. Ariew, A. 1999

    Innateness is canalization: a defense of a developmental account of innateness

    Hardcastle, V. eds. When Biology Meets PsychologyMIT PressCambridge
    Google Scholar
  3. Atran, S. 1990Cognitive Foundations of Natural HistoryCambridge University PressCambridgeGoogle Scholar
  4. Atran, S. 1998Folk biology and the anthropology of science: cognitive universals and cultural particularsBehav. Brain Sci.21547609Google Scholar
  5. Atran, S., Medin, D.L., Lynch, E., Vapnarsky, V., Ucan Ek′, E., Sousa, P. 2001Folkbiology doesn’t come from folkpsychology: evidence from Yukatec Maya in cross-cultural perspectiveJ. Cogn. Cult.1442CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Barkow, J., Cosmides, L., Tooby, J. 1992The Adapted MindOxford University PressOxfordGoogle Scholar
  7. Baron-Cohen, S. 2003The Essential DifferenceNortonNew YorkGoogle Scholar
  8. Bateson, P. 1976

    ‘Specificity and the origins of behaviour’

    Rosenblatt, J.Hinde, R.A.Beer, C. eds. Advances in the Study of BehaviorAcademic PressNew York5281
    Google Scholar
  9. Bateson, P. 1983

    Genes, environment and the development of behaviour

    Slater, P.Halliday, T. eds. Animal Behaviour: Genes, Development and LearningBlackwellOxford5281
    Google Scholar
  10. Bateson, P. 1985

    Problems and possibilities in fusing developmental and evolutionary thought

    Butterworth, G.Rutowska, J.Scaife, M. eds. Evolution and Developmental PsychologyHarvester PressLondon
    Google Scholar
  11. Bateson, P. 1991

    Are there principles of behavioural development?

    Bateson, P. eds. The Development and Integration of BehaviourCambridge University PressCambridge
    Google Scholar
  12. Bateson, P. 2000a

    What must be known in order to understand imprinting?

    Heyes, C.Huber, L. eds. The Evolution of CognitionMIT PressCambridge, MA
    Google Scholar
  13. Bateson, P. 2000b

    Taking the stink out of instinct

    Rose, H.Rose, S. eds. Alas, Poor DarwinCapeLondon
    Google Scholar
  14. Bateson, P. 2001

    Behavioral development and Darwinian evolution

    Oyama, S.Griffiths, P.E.Gray, R.D. eds. Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and EvolutionMIT PressCambridge, MA
    Google Scholar
  15. Bateson, P. 2004aThe active role of behaviour in evolutionBiol. Phil.19283298Google Scholar
  16. Bateson, P. 2004bThe origins of human differencesDaedalus1333646CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Bateson, P., Martin, P. 1999Design for a LifeCapeLondonGoogle Scholar
  18. Brigandt, I. 2003Species pluralism does not imply species eliminativismPhil. Sci.7013051316CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Buss David, M. 2003Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind2Allyn and BaconBostonGoogle Scholar
  20. Carey, S.E. 1985Conceptual Change in ChildhoodMIT PressCambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  21. Carey, S.E.Gelman, R. eds. 1991The Epigenesis of Mind: Essays on Biology and CognitionErlbaumHillsdale, NJGoogle Scholar
  22. Cassidy, J. 1979Half a century on the concept of innateness and instinct: survey, synthesis and philosophical implicationsZeit. Tierpsychol.50364386Google Scholar
  23. Chomsky, N. 1959A review of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal BehaviorLanguage352658Google Scholar
  24. Chomsky, N. 1965Aspects of the Theory of SyntaxMIT PressCambridgeGoogle Scholar
  25. Chomsky, N. 1972Language and MindHarcourt Brace JovanovichNew YorkGoogle Scholar
  26. Chomsky, N. 1975Reflections on LanguagePantheon BooksNew YorkGoogle Scholar
  27. Chomsky, N. 1980Rules and RepresentationsMIT PressCambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  28. Chomsky, N. 1982Some Concepts and Consequences of the Theory of Government and BindingMIT PressCambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  29. Chomsky, N. 1986Knowledge of Language: Its NatureOrigins, and UsePraegerNew YorkGoogle Scholar
  30. Chomsky, N. 1988Language and Problems of KnowledgeMIT PressCambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  31. Chomsky, N. 1993

    On the natureuseand acquisition of language

    Goldman, A.I. eds. Philosophy and Cognitive ScienceMIT PressCambridge, MA
    Google Scholar
  32. Chomsky, N. 2000On Nature and LanguageCambridge University PressCambridgeGoogle Scholar
  33. Cowie, F. 1999What’s Within: Nativism ReconsideredOxford University PressOxfordGoogle Scholar
  34. Crews, D. 1996Temperature-dependent sex determination: the interplay of steroid hormones and temperatureZool. Sci.13113Google Scholar
  35. Damasio, A. 1994Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human BrainPutnamNew YorkGoogle Scholar
  36. Darwin, C. 1859On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural SelectionMurrayLondonGoogle Scholar
  37. Darwin, C. 1871The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to SexMurrayLondonGoogle Scholar
  38. Darwin, C. 1872The Expression of Emotions in Man and AnimalsMurrayLondonGoogle Scholar
  39. Dawkins, R. 1982The Extended PhenotypeOxfordFreemanGoogle Scholar
  40. Dawkins, R. 1996Climbing Mount ImprobableNortonNew YorkGoogle Scholar
  41. DeCasper, A.J., Spence, M.J. 1986Prenatal maternal speech influences newborns’ perception of speech soundsInfant Behav. Dev.9133150CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Eibl-Eibesfeld, I. 1961

    The interaction of unlearned behaviour patterns and learning in mammals

    Delasfrenaye, J.M. eds. Brain Mechanisms and LearningBlackwellOxford
    Google Scholar
  43. Elman, J.L., Bates, E.A., Johnson, M.H., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Parisi, D., Plunkett, K. 1996Rethinking InnatenessMIT PressCambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  44. Evans, J.D., Wheeler, D.E. 1999Differential gene expression between developing queens and workers in the honey beeApis melliferaProc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA9655755580CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Falconer, D.S., Mackay, T.F.C. 1996Introduction to Quantitative Genetics4LongmannLondonGoogle Scholar
  46. Fodor, J. 1981

    The present status of the innateness controversy

    Fodor, J. eds. Re-Presentations: Philosophical Essays on the Foundations of Cognitive ScienceMIT PressCambridge, MA
    Google Scholar
  47. Fodor, J. 2000The Mind Doesn’t Work That WayMIT PressCambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  48. Fodor, J. 2001Doing without what’s withinMind11099148CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Futuyma, D.J. 1997Evolutionary BiologySinauerSunderland, MAGoogle Scholar
  50. Gander, E.M. 2003On Our MindsJohns HopkinsBaltimoreGoogle Scholar
  51. Gilbert, S.F. 2001Ecological developmental biology: developmental biology meets the real worldDev. Biol.233112CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Gilbert, S.F. 2002


    Pagel, M. eds. Encyclopedia of EvolutionOxford University PressOxford
    Google Scholar
  53. Gilbert, S.F. 2003a

    The reactive genome

    Muller, G.B.Newman, S.A. eds. Origination of Organismal Form: Beyond the Gene in Developmental and Evolutionary BiologyMIT PressCambridge, MA
    Google Scholar
  54. Gilbert, S.F. 2003bEvo-devodevo-evoand devgen-popgeneBiol. Phil.18347352Google Scholar
  55. Gilbert, S.F. 2003cDevelopmental Biology7SinauerSunderland, MAGoogle Scholar
  56. Godfrey-Smith, P. 1999

    Genes and codes: lessons from the philosophy of mind?

    Hardcastle, V. eds. Where Biology Meets PsychologyMIT PressCambridge, MA
    Google Scholar
  57. Godfrey-Smith, P. 2000On the theoretical role of “genetic coding”Phil. Sci.672644Google Scholar
  58. Gottlieb, G. 1992Individual Development and EvolutionOxford University PressNew YorkGoogle Scholar
  59. Gottlieb, G. 1997Synthesizing Nature-NurtureLawrence ErlbaumMahwah, NJGoogle Scholar
  60. Gottlieb, G. 2003a

    Behavioral development and evolution

    Hall, B.K.Olson, W.M. eds. Keywords and Concepts in Evolutionary Developmental BiologyHarvard University PressCambridge, MA
    Google Scholar
  61. Gottlieb, G. 2003bOn making behavioral genetics truly developmentalHum. Dev.46337355Google Scholar
  62. Gray, R.D. 1992

    Death of the gene: developmental systems strike back

    Griffiths, P.E. eds. Trees of Life: Essays on the Philosophy of BiologyKluwerDordrecht
    Google Scholar
  63. Gray, R.D. 2001

    Selfish genes or developmental systems?

    Singh, R.Krimbas, K.Paul, D.D.Beatty, J. eds. Thinking about EvolutionCambridge University PressCambridge
    Google Scholar
  64. Griffiths, P.E. 1997What Emotions Really AreUniversity of Chicago PressChicagoGoogle Scholar
  65. Griffiths, P.E. 2001Genetic information: a metaphor in search of a theoryPhil. Sci.68394412CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Griffiths, P.E. 2002What is innateness?Monist857085Google Scholar
  67. Griffiths, P.E. 2004Instinct in the ‘850s: the British reception of Konrad Lorenz’s theory of instinctive behaviourBiol. Phil.19609631Google Scholar
  68. Griffths P.E. forthcoming. The fearless vampire conservator: Philip Kitcher, genetic determinism and the informational genes. In: Neumann-Held E. and Rehmann-Sutter C. (eds), Genes in Development: Rereading the Molecular Paradigm. Duke University Press, Durham, NC.Google Scholar
  69. Griffiths, P.E., Gray, R.D. 1994Developmental systems and evolutionary explanationJ. Phil.91277304Google Scholar
  70. Griffiths, P.E., Gray, R.D. 1997Replicator II: judgement dayBiol. Phil.12471492Google Scholar
  71. Griffiths, P.E., Gray, R.D. 2001

    Darwinism and developmental systems

    Oyama, S.Griffiths, P.E.Gray, R.D. eds. Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and EvolutionMIT PressCambridge, MA
    Google Scholar
  72. Hallgrimsson, B. 2002

    Developmental stability

    Pagel, M. eds. Encyclopedia of EvolutionOxford University PressOxford
    Google Scholar
  73. Hebb, D.O. 1953Heredity and environment in animal behaviourBr. J. Anim. Behav.14347Google Scholar
  74. Herrnstein, R., Murray, C. 1994The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American LifeThe Free PressNew YorkGoogle Scholar
  75. Heyes, C. 2000

    Evolutionary psychology in the round

    Heyes, C.Huber, L. eds. The Evolution of CognitionMIT PressCambridge, MA
    Google Scholar
  76. Heyes, C. 2003Four routes of cognitive evolutionPsychol. Rev.110713727Google Scholar
  77. Hinde, R.A. 1966Animal Behavior: A Synthesis of Ethology and Comparative PsychologyMcGraw HillNew YorkGoogle Scholar
  78. Hogan, J.A. 1994

    The concept of cause in the study of behavior

    Hogan, J.A.Bolhuis, J.J. eds. Causal Mechanisms of Behavioural DevelopmentCambridge University PressCambridge
    Google Scholar
  79. Hogan, J.A. 2001

    Development of behavior systems

    Blass, E.M. eds. Handbook of Behavioral NeurobiologyKluwer Academic PublishersNew York
    Google Scholar
  80. Jacobs, J. 1981How heritable is innate behaviour?Zeit. Tierpsychol.55118Google Scholar
  81. Janzen, F.J., Paukstis, G.L. 1991Environmental sex determination in reptiles: ecology, evolution, and experimental designQuart. Rev. Biol.66149179CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Jensen, D.D. 1961Operationalism and the question ‘Is this behavior learned or innate?’Behaviour1718Google Scholar
  83. Jensen, A.R. 1969How much can we boost IQ and scholastic achievement?Har. Edu. Rev.191123Google Scholar
  84. Johnston, T.D. 2001

    Towards a systems view of development: an appraisal of Lehrman’s critique of Lonrenz

    Oyama, S.Griffiths, P.E.Gray, R.D. eds. Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and EvolutionMIT PressCambridge, MA
    Google Scholar
  85. Khalidi, M.A. 2002Nature and nurture in cognitionBr. J. Phil. Sci.53251272Google Scholar
  86. Lehrman, D.S. 1953A critique of Konrad Lorenz’s theory of instinctive behaviorQuart. Rev. Biol.28337363CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Lehrman, D.S.,  et al. 1970

    Semantic and conceptual issues in the nature-nurture problem

    Aronson, L.Tobech, E.Lehiman, D.S.Rosenblatt, J. eds. Development and Evolution of BehaviorFreemanSan Francisco
    Google Scholar
  88. Lewontin, R.C. 1974The analysis of variance and the analysis of causesAm. J. Hum. Genet.26400411Google Scholar
  89. Lewontin, R.C. 2000The Triple Helix: GeneOrganism and EnvironmentHarvard University PressCambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  90. Lorenz, K. 1937Uber den Begriff der InstinkthandlungFolia Biotheor.21750Google Scholar
  91. Lorenz, K. 1939Vergleichende VerhaltensforschungZool. Anzeit.12(Suppl. band.)69102Google Scholar
  92. Lorenz, K. 1965Evolution and Modification of BehaviorMeuthenLondonGoogle Scholar
  93. Lynch, M., Walsh, B. 1997Genetics and Analysis of Quantitative TraitsSinauerSunderland, MAGoogle Scholar
  94. Mameli, M. 2004Nongenetic selection and nongenetic inheritanceBr. J. Phil. Sci.553571Google Scholar
  95. Mameli, M. 2005The inheritance of featuresPhil. Biol.20365399Google Scholar
  96. Mameli M. and Papineau P. 2005. The new nativism: a commentary on Marcus’s The Birth of the Mind. Biol. Phil.Google Scholar
  97. Marcus, G. 2003The Birth of the MindBasic BooksNew YorkGoogle Scholar
  98. Marler, P. 2004Innateness and the instinct to learnAnais Acad. Brasil. Cien.76189200Google Scholar
  99. Miller, G.F. 2000The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human NatureDoubledayNew YorkGoogle Scholar
  100. Medin, D.L.Atran, S. eds. 1999FolkbiologyMIT PressCambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  101. Maynard Smith, J. 2000The concept of information in biologyPhil. Sci.62177194Google Scholar
  102. Meaney, M. 2003Naturenurtureand the disunity of scienceAnn. N Y Acad. Sci.9355061Google Scholar
  103. Moore, D.S. 2001The Dependent Gene: The Fallacy of “Nature vs. Nurture”Holt and CompanyNew YorkGoogle Scholar
  104. Pinker, S. 1998How the Mind WorksNortonNew YorkGoogle Scholar
  105. Pinker, S. 2002The Blank SlateViking PengiumNew YorkGoogle Scholar
  106. Pinker S. 2004. Why nature and nurture won’t go away. Daedalus 133(4): 5–17.Google Scholar
  107. Plotkin, H.C. 1997Evolution in Mind: An Introduction to Evolutionary PsychologyHarvard University PressCambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  108. Quartz, S.R. 1999The constructivist brainTrends Cogn. Sci.34857CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  109. Quartz, S.R., Sejnowski, T.J. 1997The neural basis of cognitive development: a constructivist manifestoBehav. Brain Sci.20537596Google Scholar
  110. Rachinsky, A., Hartfelder, K. 1990Corpora allata activity, aprime regulating element for caste-specific juvenile hormone titre in honey bee larvae (Apis mellifera carnica)J. Insect Physiol.36189194CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  111. Rowland, W.J., Sevenster, P. 1985Sign stimuli in sticklebacks: are-examination and extension of some classic experimentsBehaviour93241257Google Scholar
  112. Ridley, M. 2003EvolutionOxfordBlackwellGoogle Scholar
  113. Samuels, R. 1998What brains won’t tell us about the mind: a critique of the neurobiological argument against representational nativismMind Lang.13548570CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  114. Samuels, R. 2002Nativism in cognitive scienceMind Lang.17233265CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  115. Samuels, R. 2004Innateness in cognitive scienceTrends Cogn. Sci.8136141CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  116. Schneirla, T.C. 1956

    The interrelationship of ‘innate’ and ‘acquired’ in instinctive behavior

    Grasse, P.P. eds. L’instinct dans le comportement des animaux et de l’hommeMassonParis
    Google Scholar
  117. Sober, E. 1984The Nature of SelectionMIT PressCambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  118. Sober, E. 2001Philosophy of BiologyBoulderWestviewGoogle Scholar
  119. Sterelny, K. 2000The “genetic program” program: a commentary on Maynard Smith on information in biologyPhil. Sci.67195201CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  120. Sterelny, K. 2001

    Niche construction, developmental systems, and the extended replicator

    Oyama, S.Griffiths, P.E.Gray, R.D. eds. Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and EvolutionMIT PressCambridge, MA
    Google Scholar
  121. Sterelny, K. 2003Thought in a Hostile WorldOxfordBlackwellGoogle Scholar
  122. Sterelny, K. 2004

    Symbiosis, evolvability and modularity

    Schlosser, G.Wagner, G. eds. Modularity in Development and EvolutionUniversity of Chicago PressChicago
    Google Scholar
  123. Sterelny, K., Kitcher, P.S. 1988The return of the geneJ. Phil.85335358Google Scholar
  124. Sterelny, K., Smith, K., Dickison, M. 1996The extended replicatorBiol. Phil.11377403Google Scholar
  125. Spence, M.J., DeCasper, A.J. 1987Prenatal experience with low-frequency maternal voice sounds influences neonatal perception of maternal voice samplesInfant Behav. Dev.10133142CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  126. Symons, D. 1992

    On the use and misuse of Darwinism in the study of human behavior

    Barkow, J.H.Cosmides, L.Tooby, J. eds. The Adapted MindOxford University PressOxford
    Google Scholar
  127. Tinbergen, N. 1951The Study of InstinctClarendon PressOxfordGoogle Scholar
  128. Tinbergen, N. 1955

    Psychology and ethology as supplementary parts of a science of behaviour

    Schaffner, B. eds. Group ProcessesJosiah Macy Jr. FoundationNew York
    Google Scholar
  129. Tinbergen, N. 1963On aims and methods of ethologyZeit. Tierpsychol.20404433Google Scholar
  130. Tooby, J., Cosmides, L. 1990aOn the universality of human nature and the uniqueness of the individual: the role of genetics and adaptationJ. Personal.581767Google Scholar
  131. Tooby, J., Cosmides, L. 1990bThe past explains the present: emotional adaptations and the structure of ancestral environmentsEthol. Sociobiol.11375424Google Scholar
  132. Tooby, J., Cosmides, L. 1992

    The psychological foundations of culture

    Barkow, J.Cosmides, L.Tooby, J. eds. The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of CultureOxford University PressNew York
    Google Scholar
  133. Weele, C. 1999Images of Development: Environmental Causes in OntogenySuny PressAlbany NYGoogle Scholar
  134. Waddington, C.H. 1957The Strategy of the GeneRoutledgeLondonGoogle Scholar
  135. Waddington, C.H. 1975The Evolution of an EvolutionistCornell University PressIthacaGoogle Scholar
  136. West-Eberhard, M.J. 2003Developmental Plasticity and EvolutionOxford University PressOxfordGoogle Scholar
  137. Wilkins, A. 2003

    Canalization and genetic assimilation

    Hall, B.K.Olson, W.M. eds. Keywords and Concepts in Evolutionary Developmental BiologyHarvard University PressCambridge, MA
    Google Scholar
  138. Wilson, R.A. 2005Genes and the Agents of LifeCambridge University PressCambridgeGoogle Scholar
  139. Wimsatt W. 1986. Developmental constraints, generative entrenchment, and the innate acquired distinction. In: Bechtel W. (ed.), Integrating Scientific Disciplines. Martinus-Nijhoff.Google Scholar
  140. Wimsatt, W.C. 1999

    Generativity, entrenchmentevolution, and innateness: philosophy, evolutionary biology, and conceptual foundations of science

    Hardcastle, V. eds. When Biology Meets PsychologyMIT PressCambridge
    Google Scholar
  141. Wright, R. 1997The Moral AnimalPeter SmithLondonGoogle Scholar
  142. Yntema, C.L., Mrosovsky, N. 1982Critical periods and pivotal temperatures for sexual differentiation in loggerhead sea turtlesCan. J. Zool.6010121016Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer 2006

Authors and Affiliations

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

Personalised recommendations