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An Evaluation of the Concept of Innateness

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Matteo Mameli, Patrick Bateson

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)436 - 443
Number of pages8
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1563
Published12 Feb 2011

King's Authors


The concept of innateness is often used in explanations and classifications of biological and cognitive traits. But does this concept have a legitimate role to play in contemporary scientific discourse? Empirical studies and theoretical developments have revealed that simple and intuitively appealing ways of classifying traits (e. g. genetically specified versus owing to the environment) are inadequate. They have also revealed a variety of scientifically interesting ways of classifying traits each of which captures some aspect of the innate/non-innate distinction. These include things such as whether a trait is canalized, whether it has a history of natural selection, whether it developed without learning or without a specific set of environmental triggers, whether it is causally correlated with the action of certain specific genes, etc. We offer an analogy: the term 'jade' was once thought to refer to a single natural kind; it was then discovered that it refers to two different chemical compounds, jadeite and nephrite. In the same way, we argue, researchers should recognize that 'innateness' refers not to a single natural kind but to a set of (possibly related) natural kinds. When this happens, it will be easier to progress in the field of biological and cognitive sciences.

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