Innateness and human language: a biological perspective

W. Tecumseh Fitch

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199541119
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

Innateness and human language: a biological perspective

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  • Linguistics
  • Language Evolution
  • Cognitive Linguistics



This article presents the multiple uses of the concepts of “innate” and “instinctive”, by biologists. A broad notion of “innate” in the sense of “having some genetic basis” has thus been central to evolutionary approaches to behavior. Lorenz and other ethologists focused on the study of instinct for three practical reasons that include the fact that it justified the discussion and experimental investigation of the adaptive function of behavior, in a Darwinian context, and it allowed ethologists to construct phylogenetic taxonomies of behavior, and thus to explore the evolution of behavior using a comparative method. It signaled a research strategy focused on those aspects of behavior that appear reliably in a species by the time of study, but which avoided the difficult problem of their developmental origins. The developmental psychologist Daniel Lehrman noted that ethologists used the term “instinct” in multiple different ways. Lorenz and his colleague Niko Tinbergen argued that evolved innate mechanisms could not be avoided in understanding behavior, but that developmental, mechanistic, and evolutionary questions all have a role to play in ethology. Lorenz concluded that learning is impossible without inherited information, but he denied the opposite claim, which was that all instincts entail learning.

Keywords: innateness; evolutionary approaches to behavior; Tinbergen's ethology; learning; Darwin's theory

Article.  5266 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution ; Cognitive Linguistics

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