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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For instance, scientists may supply evidence to show that a trait is “innate” in the sense that it is the product of natural selection and then infer that the trait is “innate” in the sense that it is species typical. Griffiths et al. (2009) and Linquist et al. (2011) discuss these fallacies of ambiguity in detail.

  2. 2.

    Mameli and Bateson (2006) take Ariew to be using canalization to mean insensitivity in the sense that I use it, rather than Waddington’s concept of canalization. If they are right, then the difference between Ariew and my account is that I call for a relativization of innateness, and Ariew does not. However, in most presentations of his view, Ariew seems to mean canalization in Waddington’s sense: a buffered developmental pathway.

  3. 3.

    A developmental pathway may be canalized against genetic variations as well, but what matters for the purpose of the innateness debate is “environmental canalization”; this is what Ariew focuses on, and I will follow his example.

  4. 4.

    This is a hypothetical case derived from experiments Waddington performed (1953).

  5. 5.

    Whether the evidence that scientists supply in any given case is sufficient to show that the trait is actually innate with respect to all experience, or all types of learning is a related problem. When scientists only have the evidence to show that the appearance of the trait does not depend on formal learning, they should either say that the trait is innate with respect to formal learning rather than saying the trait is innate with respect to learning generally or recognize that they have only provided weak evidence for the more general claim.

  6. 6.

    There may remain intermediate-level innateness claims to be contested, though, if these are what interest scientists. For instance, we might want to know whether surgical dexterity is innate with respect to any sort of formal instruction.

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Acknowledgments

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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Correspondence to Elizabeth O’Neill.

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O’Neill, E. Relativizing innateness: innateness as the insensitivity of the appearance of a trait with respect to specified environmental variation. Biol Philos 30, 211–225 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-014-9465-8

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Keywords

  • Innateness
  • Canalization
  • Insensitivity
  • Traits
  • André Ariew
  • Eliminativism