Innateness and Science

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Northcott, Robert
conference paper description
Although a huge range of definitions has accumulated in the philosophy, biology and psychology literatures, no consensus has been reached on exactly what innateness amounts to. This has helped fuel an increasing skepticism, one that views the concept as anachronistic and actually harmful to science. Yet it remains central to many life sciences, and to several public policy issues too. So it is correspondingly urgent that its philosophical underpinnings be properly cleaned up. In this paper, I present a new approach that endorses a role in science for innateness while also accommodating many of the skeptical concerns. The key to squaring the circle is to import influential recent work on causal explanation. My thesis is that ascriptions of innateness are best seen as explanatory claims. The account that results has three main original features: 1) Innateness is a pragmatic, relational concept. Every trait may be either innate or non-innate, depending on explanatory context. 2) There is an important distinction between innate traits and innate dispositions. 3) Innateness is useful to science as a higher-level predicate that licenses interventions. It is thereby also clarified what ascriptions of innateness do not tell us.