From Cell-Surface Receptors to Higher Learning: A Whole World of Experience

  • Karola Stotz
  • Colin Allen
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 282)


In the last decade it has become en vogue for cognitive comparative psychologists to study animal behavior in an ‘integrated’ fashion to account for both the ‘innate’ and the ‘acquired’. We will argue that these studies, instead of really integrating the concepts of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’, rather cement this old dichotomy. They combine empty nativist interpretations of behavior systems with blatantly environmentalist explanations of learning. We identify the main culprit as the failure to take development seriously. While in some areas of biology interest in the relationship between behavior and development has surged through topics such as extragenetic inheritance, niche construction, and phenotypic plasticity, this has gone almost completely unnoticed in the study of animal behavior in comparative psychology, and is frequently ignored in ethology too. The main aims of this paper are to clarify the relationship between the concepts of learning, experience, and development, and to investigate whether and how all three concepts can be usefully deployed in the study of animal behavior. This will require the full integration of the psychological study of behavior into biology, and of the idea of learning into a wider concept of experience. We lay out how, in a systems view of development, learning may just appear as one among many processes in which experience influences behavior. We argue for a position in which development and learning are tightly assimilated to one another. Not learning and development, but learning as part of development. This new synthesis should help to overcome the age-old dualism between innate and acquired. It thereby opens up the possibility of developing scientifically more fruitful distinctions.


Causal Role Phenotypic Plasticity Niche Construction Behavior Analyst System View 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



This paper has been a long time developing. It stems from our interactions while KS was a postdoctoral research associate in the Cognitive Science Program at Indiana University. Members of the Indiana University Biology Studies Research Group provided comments on an early version of this paper, and we are especially grateful to Lisa Lloyd for her written comments on that version. We would both like to thank Indiana University’s New Frontiers program for supporting the symposium “Reconciling Nature and Nurture in the Study of Behavior” organized by KS in 2007. We benefitted from a presentation of these ideas at the 2007 meeting of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, which included commentary by Luc Faucher. We are grateful to the editors Katie Plaisance and Thomas Reydon for their comments, as well as two anonymous referees for the press. We would also like to thank Ulrike Pompe for her careful reading of the penultimate draft. KS’s research is funded by the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects funding scheme (project number 0878650). CA was supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation while visiting the Ruhr University, Bochum, during the final preparation of this manuscript.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of SydneySydneyAustralia
  2. 2.History and Philosophy of Science, and Cognitive Science ProgramIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA

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