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The Innate MindReview - The Innate Mind
Structure and Contents
by Peter Carruthers, Stephen Laurence and Stephen Stich (Editors)
Oxford University Press, 2005
Review by Luc Faucher, Ph.D., Jean Lachapelle, Ph.D., and Pierre Poirier,Ph.D.
Oct 3rd 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 40)

The Innate Mind is the first volume of a set of three devoted to the question of innateness in cognitive sciences. As everyone knows, the question of innateness has been a perennial one in philosophy (see for instance the first part of Cowie's 1998). One might wonder why we should be especially interested by this question these days. The main reason has to do with the fact that now nativism is at the core of many central issues in cognitive science. After years of Skinnerian and Piagetian psychology that was seeing the mind at birth as minimally "furnished", Chomsky's linguistic work in the sixties put innateness back on the map. Since the Chomskian so-called revolution, cognitive scientists from all disciplines have been investigating the mind and have postulated innate structures or innate representations to explain the development or the (universal) structure of cognitive capacities.  If we are to believe the editors of the volume, everyone nowadays is a nativist, the debate being rather about how much innate structure, processing or representation one thinks is needed to explain the development or the presence of cognitive capacities. To answer this question, The Innate Mind offers a collection of papers from some of the most distinguished scientists and philosophers in cognitive science. The book is divided into four sections grouped under the following topics: "architecture", "language and concept", "theory of mind" and "motivation".  In what follows, we will go over each section, commenting on the content of the more interesting papers it contains.

Section 1: Architecture

For a large part of the community of cognitive scientists, modules are everywhere, that is, contrary to what Jerry Fodor claimed in his Modularity of Mind, modularity is not only on the input and output side of the mind but also central. But, if our mind is composed of hundreds of modules that are reflex-like, why aren't we like the sphex wasp described by Dennett? How can our behavior be so flexible?  Dan Sperber tries to answer this question in "Modularity and Relevance: How Can a Massively Modular Mind Be Flexible and Context-Sensitive?". His answer is based on the observation that because modules must compete for resources, not every one of them can be activated at the same time. There must therefore be a mechanism that selects which one will be activated in a given situation based on some form of relevance. But for evolutionary and efficiency reasons, this mechanism cannot be computing expected relevance all the time. Sperber's solution is that there must be some noncognitive means to determine the allocation of resources. As he puts it:  "There may be physiological indicators of the size of cognitive effects in the form of patterns of chemical or electrical activity at specific locations in the brain ... these physiological indicators locally determine the ongoing allocation of brain energy to the processing of specific inputs" (65). This is an interesting suggestion, but one may question whether it really addresses the initial question of flexibility. When we think of the flexibility of the mind, we are thinking of our capacity to fuse together information coming from different modules or acting in ways that use background information in a creative way to solve a problem. Sperber's solution doesn't help us see how the mind accomplishes this feat.

Peter Carruthers also addresses the question of the mind's flexibility in his "Distinctively Human Thinking : Modular Precursors and Components", but he gives different answer than Sperber's. According to him, it is language that provides the solution to the problem of flexibility. By interfacing with the other modules, language allows the free combination of the various contents outputted by the non-linguistic modules. One problem with his paper is that it is based on an intuitive conception of what human cognitive flexibility is. Until we have a clear understanding, based on some empirical research, of the nature and extent of flexibility, proposing language as a solution to the problem is premature. Indeed, even if we accepted this intuitive idea, one wonders if language is the only mechanism responsible for human flexibility or even the main one.

In their "Language and the Development of Spatial Reasoning," Anna Shusterman and Elizabeth Spelke propose a position that is quite similar to Carruthers'. According to them, there is some evidence for the existence of a spatial cognition module that uses geometric information in orientation problems. Studies on rats and infants show that both can use landmark information to locate food, but that this information is not used when they need to reorient themselves, even though it would be useful. Experiments conducted by Shusterman and Spelke suggest that the acquisition of language in infants changes this situation. Once infants have acquired language, they become capable of using representations that combines geometric and non-geometric information. According to the authors, the role of language is to combine, in a single representation (for instance, "the ball is left of the red wall"), the representational output of the various modules used to solve a task. This would be the key to the human mind's cognitive flexibility.

In "The Complexity of Cognition : Tractability Arguments for Massive Modularity," Richard Samuels argues that we should distinguish two conceptions of the structure of the mind that are usually conflated: psychological rationalism and massive modularity. The first conception postulates the existence of innate representational structures similar to theories, while the second postulates that the mind is constituted not only of the innate representational structures, but also of many innate processing mechanisms. According to him, tractability arguments (for instance, the frame problem), which are used to conclude that the mind faces insurmountable problems when if it's not given some kind of innate headstart, cannot adjudicate between psychological rationalism and massive modularity. The point is minor but it might prove important in the future for evolutionary psychologists to keep this distinction in mind while arguing against or in favor of innate structures.

Section 2: Language  and Concept

Mark Baker's chapter, "The Innate Endowment for Language : Underspecified or Overpecified?," is a very stimulating one. Ever since Chomsky, the consensus in linguistics was that we are born with innate linguistic principles (a universal grammar). But there are still some questions concerning the amount of information specified by those principles. On this question, two theories clash. According to the first, "UG is like an unfinished novel with the ending left to the reader's imagination," that is, UG is underspecified. According to the second, UG is like "a book with several endings from which the reader may pick," that is UG is overspecified (Baker, p. 158). Though there seems to be a bias in linguistics in favor of the first theory, Bakers shows that none of the reasons invoked in favor of it are good and that therefore, what he calls "hypernativism" is still a live option in linguistics as it is in other domains (like face perception development or phonological development). One problem with his conclusion is that the cases of overspecialization he considers in favor of hypernativism has been conceptualized in other domains (in developmental cognitive neuroscience) in precisely the inverse way, that is as a product of a brain lacking (precise) innate structures or representations (see Poirier, Faucher and Lachapelle, manuscript). In other words, the same cases have been used to argue in favor of "hyponativism".

Susan Gellman is a key figure in the concept literature. For years, she has been studying how children come to think of certain categories as natural kinds (that is, categories whose members have a common essence even if they do not look alike at the perceptual level) or as genres (abstract kinds). In "Two Insights about Naming in Preschool Child," she looks at evidence discounting empiricist accounts of how infants learn that words refer to these categories. If empiricist accounts are false, the question then becomes: what kind of mechanism explains this disposition in children?. Are those phenomena explained by domain-specific mechanisms, such as a folk biology module? Her answer is no. According to her, "the domain-specific effects, in both essentialism and generics, may emerge from domain general causes" (212). Among these domain general causes, she mentions the capacity to draw on an appearance-reality distinction, induction from property clusters, the assumption of causal determinism, the ability to track identity over time, and deference to experts. The proposition is interesting and will surely generate some spirited debates, but at the moment it is only speculation. It remains to be shown that these capacities can account for the phenomena.

Section 3: Theory of Mind

For years, Povinelli and his colleagues have been defending the idea that, despite both anecdotal and (what seems to be good) empirical evidence, chimpanzees do not have a theory of mind. In "Parent-Offspring Conflict and the Development of Social Understanding," Daniel Povinelli, Christopher Prince and Todd Preuss go one step farther and argue that much of what is regarded as early signs of the presence of a theory of mind in young infants (such as gaze-following and some forms of pointing) are "behavioral impostors," intended to fool parents into thinking that infants are more similar to them than they really are. The function of these "impostors" would be to channel more resources to infants through the positive esteem and affect they generate in their caregivers' mind. The idea that these behaviors are not driven by a form of conceptual knowledge is hardly new, but to argue that their ultimate function is explained by reference to the evolutionary theory of parent-offspring conflict is. It remains to be seen whether the idea will be empirically fruitful and, more importantly, whether it is really the case that infants have no form of innate knowledge about other minds (in the paper that follows Povinelli's, entitled "Reasoning about Intentionality in Preverbal Infants," Susan Johnson precisely defends the view that infants have some form of knowledge about other minds). 

Some in the theory of mind literature have defended the existence of an innate theory of mind module (ToMM; see for instance Scholl and Leslie 1999), a module that is allegedly impaired in autism. In her "What Neurodevelopmental Disorders Can Reveal about Cognitive Architecture : The Example of Theory of Mind," Helen Tager-Flushberg opposes this view. Using some of her previous works, she develops a two-component model of theory of mind, which, she claims, can explain much of what is left unexplained by the available theories of autism. The first element of a theory of mind is a "social-perceptual" component (preferences for faces, spontaneous interpretation of certain kinds of movement as intentional) and is thought to be lacking in all forms of autism. The second element, which she calls the "social-cognitive" component, is sometimes spared in high-functioning autistic children. Her hypothesis is that language plays an important role in the development of that component. The question then becomes how language can foster this ability in persons with autistic disorders.

Section 4: Motivation 

Cosmides, Tooby and Barrett's "Resolving the Debate on Innate Ideas: Learnability Constraints and Evolved Interpenetration of Motivational and Conceptual Functions," despite its pompous title (don't you just like it when people solve in a snap debates that have been around for centuries!) is a very good theoretical paper that tries to present a knock-down argument for nativism. The idea is the following. Poverty of the stimulus (PoS) has been one of the main arguments in favor of innateness. One problem with PoS when applied to language or faces, or almost anything else, is that there is always someone to claim that the stimulus is much richer than previously thought and that, therefore, the competence in question is learnable and, thus, not innate. One way to go around this problem, according to Cosmides and her colleagues, is to look at aspects of cognition where the thing to be "known" does not exist objectively in the world (if it does not exist in the world, it cannot be abstracted from it, therefore it has to be projected onto it). This is the case, they argue, for the motivational system. Since (1) there is nothing in the world that is intrinsically disgusting or pleasurable and (2) infants cannot be expected to learn from parents what they should be motivated by (because of infants-parents evolutionary divergent interests), (3) the only way to come to be motivated by certain things is to come to the world prepared to be so. As a bonus, the paper offers some reflections on a form of evolutionary pragmatism philosophers like the Churchlands have been championing for years now.

In "Innateness and Moral Psychology," Shaun Nichols distinguishes three ways in which one may understand the idea that morality is innate:

Rule nativism: the innate capacity to draw a distinction between certain types of rules, e.g. nonhypothetical imperative rule and hypothetical imperative rules. According to Nichols, the capacity to reason and recognize the first type of rules (or norms) could be crucial to our moral capacity.

Moral principle nativism: the explicit innate knowledge of some moral principles. This would explain why every culture has taboos against incest.

Moral judgment nativism: the capacity to distinguish moral from conventional rules. People lacking this capacity, such as psychopaths (according to some), would regard all rules as conventional rules.

After considering the argument for each type of nativism, Nichols concludes that morality would be best explained by an appeal to innate affective systems combined with an innate capacity for recognizing and reasoning about norms. Thus, the view of morality drawn by Nichols is that it is neither the product of a domain-general nor of a domain-specific capacity. Rather, morality would be the product of emotional capacities that are, to use his expression, "domain diverse" as well as the capacities, which are not distinctively moral, to learn and recognize norms. One question that arises concerns the capacities to learn and recognize norms: are they subserved by a unique (domain specific) mechanism or by a multitude of non-specific mechanisms?


Let us close with a few of critical remarks.

First, the volume would have been much better if it had included a section discussing what exactly is meant by "innateness" in the literature (this may come in the third volume of the collection, The Innate Mind: Foundations and the Future, but it would have been good to get on firm ground first). In their introduction, the editors suggest that, nowadays, the debate isn't about the nature of innateness anymore, but about how much innate structure or representation is required to explain development. But this does not seem to be an accurate depiction of the situation. A quick glance at recent issues of Philosophy of Science or Biology and Philosophy reveals that there is still some debate in philosophy concerning the usefulness of the notion or concerning the way it should be understood in biology and in psychology (Griffiths, 2002). Perhaps, as Samuels (2004) put forward in a recent paper, cognitive science's notion of innateness is sui generis. But even that is far from obvious.

For instance, the editors wish understand innateness in a way that is congruent with Samuels' proposal as they write:

a cognitive mechanism, representation, bias, or connection to be innate to the extent that it emerges at some point in the course of normal development but is not a product of learning (p. 5).

But in the same volume,some people use a different concept of innateness, one that looks very much like the one we find in biology:


We use innate, nativism, and so on because, given the discourse practices of philosophers and cognitive scientists, they are the closest counterpart to a more biologically elaborate concept. That is, while genetic determinism is an incoherent position, so is environmental determinism. ... When we call something innate, ... [w]hat we mean is that it reliably develops across the species' normal range of environments.  (Cosmides et al., p. 323)

According to this second definition, being innate is about robustly getting to an end-state, not about the way one comes to acquire something. So according to this definition, something could well be both innate and learned (if both are involved in robustly getting to the end-state). It thus seem that there is at least two notions of innateness[1] in the cognitive science literature. If such is the case, to believe that there is a consensus on the question of innateness is inaccurate.

            Second, from an editorial point of view, the way the sections have been divided in this volume seems a bit artificial. For instance, Carruthers presents a very speculative paper on the way the human massively modular mind evolved such that it now exhibits flexibility. A central piece of the puzzle, according to him, is the acquisition of a module devoted to language. The purely theoretical argument might not be found particularly convincing, but would have looked much more convincing had it been presented just after Shusterman and Spelke's paper on a very similar topic. The experimental data Shusterman and Spelke present in their paper makes Carruthers' story much more credible than when it rests on purely theoretical considerations. Moreover, in a different section, Laurence and Margolis present a critic of Spelke's ideas (as well as those of Gellman and Gallistel), that makes one wonder why it wasn't placed right after Spelke's and Carruthers' papers given the fact that it puts into question their general thesis concerning the relationships between the outputs of modules and language. Similar remarks could be made for other papers in the book.

This being said, the volume presents some very stimulating papers (many of which we could not consider in this review) and should find its way onto the bookshelves of any cognitive scientist interested by questions related to the innate architecture of the mind, right besides Elman et al. (1996) Rethinking Innateness and Fodor (2000) The Mind Doesn't Work that Way (around which many of the papers revolve). We, on our part, cannot wait for the next two volumes of the collection.


Works Cited

Cowie, F. 1998. What's Within: Nativism Reconsidered. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Elman, R., E. Bates, M. H. Johnson, A. Karmiloff-Smith, D. Parisi and K. Plunkett. 1996. Rethinking Innateness. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Fodor, J. 2000. The Mind Doesn't Work That Way: The Scope and Limits of Evolutionary Psychology. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Griffiths, P. 2002 "What is Innateness?". The Monist, vol. 85, no. 1, p. 70-85.

Poirier, P., L. Faucher and J. Lachapelle. manuscrit. "The Concept of Innateness and the Destiny of Evolutionary Psychology"Mind and Behavior.

Samuels,  R. 2004. "Innateness and Cognitive Science". Trends  in Cognitive Sciences, Vol. 8, no. 3, p. 136-141.

Scholl, Brian J. & Leslie, Alan M. 1999. Modularity, Development and 'Theory of Mind.

Mind & Language, vol. 14, no. 1, p. 131-153.


© 2006 Luc Faucher, Jean Lachapelle, Pierre Poirier


Luc Faucher (PhD, Philosophy Department, Université du Québec à Montréal), Jean Lachapelle (PhD, Humanities Department, Champlain College, Saint-Lambert), Pierre Poirier (PhD, Philosophy Department, Université du Québec à Montréal)


[1] There is even a third notion used in the book as some equate innateness with genetic determinism. For instance, Duntley and Buss write: "The genes provide the blueprint for the development of adaptations." (p. 292)


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