Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 30, Issue 2, pp 211–225 | Cite as

Relativizing innateness: innateness as the insensitivity of the appearance of a trait with respect to specified environmental variation

  • Elizabeth O’Neill


I object to eliminativism about innateness and André Ariew’s identification of innateness with canalization, and I propose a new treatment of innateness. I first argue that the concept of innateness is serving a valuable function in a diverse set of research contexts, and in these contexts, claims about innateness are best understood as claims about the insensitivity of the appearance of a trait to certain variations in the environment. I then argue that innateness claims, like claims about canalization, should be explicitly relativized to the specific range of environmental variations of interest to the scientist. My account characterizes an important way in which scientists are employing the concept and offers a way for scientists to carry on using the concept in their research while minimizing confusion and miscommunication. There is a fruitful research program, I claim, in which scientists employ the concept of innateness to help distinguish environmental factors of interest that have a causal influence on the appearance of a trait from those that do not.


Innateness Canalization Insensitivity Traits André Ariew Eliminativism 



I am grateful for helpful feedback on previous drafts of this paper from Edouard Machery, James Woodward, Yoichi Ishida, Joseph McCaffrey, Liam Bright, and Marshall Abrams, and helpful questions and suggestions from audiences at the Philosophy of Science Association meeting in 2010, the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology meeting in 2013, a Work in Progress talk at the University of Pittsburgh in 2013, and the Philosophy of Biology at Madison workshop in 2014. I am also grateful to two anonymous reviewers and Kim Sterelny for helpful comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of History and Philosophy of ScienceUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA

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