Abstract: Claims that certain traits are innate abound in the biological and cognitive sciences. Having legs is said to be an innate trait for frogs (and many other species), and the capacity to learn a language is said to be innate for humans. These claims appear to be intended as explanatory statements—the fact that a trait is innate is meant to perform some work towards explaining things that we would like our biological and cognitive theories to explain. But what exactly are the explananda of innateness claims? Do innateness claims seek to explain instances of particular traits emerging in individuals? Or are they aimed at explaining the existence of commonalities—or differences—in a population (such as a species)? Or perhaps both of these? Is there any one thing that innateness claims are meant to explain across the different scientific disciplines in which they occur, or does innateness mean different things in different domains?
In this talk I examine the explanatory role of innateness claims across a range of contexts and offer the following two tentative conclusions: (i) innateness claims are best construed as providing only individual-level (rather than population-level) explanations; and (ii) the explananda of innateness claims differ from context to context, owing to both theoretical and pragmatic considerations. Thus, I argue, there is no one thing that “innateness” means across all scientific contexts. In particular, the notion of innateness that is generally most useful in cognitive science differs from any of the notions that might be useful in biological contexts.