Innateness as genetic adaptation: Lorenz redivivus (and revised)

Biology and Philosophy 32 (4):559-580 (2017)
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In 1965, Konrad Lorenz grounded the innate–acquired distinction in what he believed were the only two possible sources of information that can underlie adaptedness: phylogenetic and individual experience. Phylogenetic experience accumulates in the genome by the process of natural selection. Individual experience is acquired ontogenetically through interacting with the environment during the organism’s lifetime. According to Lorenz, the adaptive information underlying innate traits is stored in the genome. Lorenz erred in arguing that genetic adaptation is the only means of accumulating information in phylogenetic experience. Cultural adaptation also occurs over a phylogenetic time scale, and cultural tradition is a third source from which adaptive information can be extracted. This paper argues that genetic adaptation can be distinguished from individual and cultural adaptation in a species like Homo sapiens, in which even adaptations with a genetic component require cultural inputs and scaffolding to develop and be expressed. Examination of the way in which innateness is used in science suggests that scientists use the term, as Lorenz suggested, to designate genetic adaptations. The search for innate traits plays an essential role in generating hypotheses in ethology and psychology. In addition, designating a trait as innate establishes important facts that apply at the information-processing level of description.

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Nathan Cofnas
Cambridge University


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