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Innate Versus Acquired Distinction: Maynard Smith’s Views Essay

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Updated: Jun 30th, 2020

Over the past few years, the concept of information has occupied a prominent place in the field of biology. The phenomenon has extended beyond the borders of this scientific field and is believed to include aspects of perception, cognition, language, and biological theories. The use of information has elicited debate in relation to the description of the association between genes and other structures.

Many biologists argue that the causal role of genes is best explained on the basis of the information they posses. Scholars like John Maynard (2000, pp. 177-194) are of the opinion that the innate or acquired distinction between organisms makes sense in biology. The reason for this is that these inherent traits are brought about by genes that contain information on development of the organism.

In this paper, the author analyzes the concept of information with regards to biology and philosophy of science. Ideas like those involving innate differentiation have elicited debate among contemporary scholars and critics in this field. The individuals who argue in favor of developmental information have made efforts to answer the various questions posed at them. The emergence of new schools of thought has shown signs of uniting all the concepts existing at the moment. A substantiated body of philosophical literature has stood out to address this issue from a methodological point of view. All these claimed views will be countered using Maynard’s suggestions.

Background Information

Differences between Innate and Acquired Traits

To many biologists, the process of characterization among organisms is a unique one. It is defined by the nature of information in the genes, the program used in execution of this data, and interpretation of codes. Contemporary biology is more materialistic compared to ancient science. However, it encompasses ideas that philosophers call deliberate or semantic concepts. The ideas are known to cause ‘foundational derails’ as far as materialism is concerned. The innate versus acquired is such a notion that elicits debate in these circles.

Griffiths opines that “the association of innateness and heritability must be completely separated” (2001, p. 398). Griffiths argues that the use of these terms in the same sentence is “vulgar fallacy” (2001, p. 398). The scholar defines heritability as “trait in a population with a proportion of identifiable differences (…) between individuals brought about by their genetic (variations)” (2001, p. 399). The association between this line of argument and the distinction between innate and acquired biological traits remains highly controversial (Griffiths, 2001).

The position has been countered by many scholars. For example, the fact that traits are innate is expressed by simply stating that “they (attributes) are in the genes”. Genes are known to play a fundamental role in defining every aspect of biological traits. As a result of this, it is ambiguous to argue that some characteristics are brought about by internal forces, while others are products of the environment. Any association between the two is more complex than many people think (Kaplan, 2000).

Maynard’s Arguments in Relation to other Scholars

Innateness and Genes

The relationship between the two concepts is very interesting. A case in point is their use in the 2008 US elections. Commentators associated the reactions and attributes of the politicians to what they were referring to as their political make up. Such arguments are examples of how contemporary philosophy has replaced the words “in the blood” with “in the genes”.

For example, access to information has made many people to realize that the genes go beyond the blood of the organism. Knowledge on genetics can be used to shed light on the innate versus acquired debate. However, this does not mean that some traits (innate) are due to genetic factors, while others (acquired) are as a result of environmental impacts on the organism (Kaplan, 2000).

Two individuals can be compared on the basis of genetic and environmental differences. However, it is important to note that the development of individual traits depends on the two phenomena. In every process of development, guidelines of expression are contained in the genome. In addition, the countless elements of environmental traits are absorbed at different stages of life. Such a scenario is what keeps the organism vibrant. To this end, the interaction between genome and environmental factors brings about the said traits. Many scholars have affirmatively referred to these phenomena as “interactionist consensus” (Griffiths, 2001, p. 402).

Kaplan (2000) argues that if all traits are genetically controlled, then there must be a special way of interaction between the organism and the environment within which it is found. Kaplan gives the example of the various ways different people respond to the issue of “in the DNA” or “in the genes”. Kaplan (2000) asserts that the varying reactions imply that genes encompass instructions or a coded program. The latter refers to innate traits and not to acquired ones. With respect to the language used in coding, Maynard (2000) counters this by arguing that genes can achieve the fete. Maynard argues on the basis of the initial structure outlined in the amino acid sequence in proteins.

A Scientific and Philosophical Consensus

Different scholars have made attempts to explain the relationship between “code for” and “cause of” phenotypic traits. What this means is that the information contained in the genes is responsible for the phonotypical element of organisms. For instance, Maynard is of the opinion that “…human Y chromosomes contain sex information in the same sense that smoke means fire” (2000, p. 189). In this context, the occurrence or presence of a given element can be predicted on the basis of another.

With regards to this, Griffiths (2001) asserts that the argument about information can be used to explain the influence of environment over development. Griffiths (2001) holds that information about the sex of mammals is genetically coded. However, Maynard (2000) argues that the case is different for reptiles. In these animals, sex is determined by the temperature in which eggs are incubated. As such, the development of the organisms is influenced by environmental factors. Other animals change sex in the course of development. A case in point is some species of fish, which switch their sex to adapt to the environment.

The notion that genes contain information as far as phenotype is concerned is not an ideal common sense in itself. The reason is that this argument does not explain the cause or purpose of other signals. Such a scenario implies that all traits are influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. In light of this, it is important to reconstruct the innate versus acquired debate to account for the different ways through which internal and external systems interact with one another.

Maynard (2000) provides an example to explain the interaction between the genes (internal system) and the environment (external system). Maynard (2000) holds that this relationship can be explained using the “norm of reaction” ideology. An illustration of this is the development of the genotype in relation to environmental variables.

Maynard (2000) suggests that in this kind of engagement, two organisms sharing the same genotype will exhibit similar phenotypic traits regardless of the environmental dynamics. Griffiths (2001) concurs with this ideology. The scholar argues that a given phenotypic trait is genetically determined, although it may be influenced by external factors. Some critics have refuted these claims. However, their contentions have not provided a viable alternative explanation.

Another form of reaction involves additive interactions between genetic and environmental influences. It is noted that within a given range of signals from external forces or systems, genotype maintains a ‘constant variation’. There are no fluctuations across the continuum. In this case, the genes are regarded as variables that do not take part in the development of individual traits. However, the genome is more than just a spectator in these dynamics.

It determines the differences between individuals. To put it differently, one can argue that the genotype and the environment work together to establish the end product (organism). The effects of each of these factors on the final outcome are functions of specified values determined by the nature of the interaction. According to Maynard (2000), inherent traits are brought about by genes that contain information on the development of the organism.


In this paper, the debate revolving around the issue of innate versus acquired traits was addressed. The proponents and opponents that have established their stands in this controversy cite various reasons to support their arguments. They cite the findings of studies conducted in, among others, linguistics, psychology, and biology.

In the current report, it was established that there is a unique relationship between the environment and the individual genetic composition in organisms. Some traits are innate, while others are acquired from the external environment. However, Maynard has failed to effectively address the debate revolving around the relationship between the genes and the environment.


Griffiths, P. (2001). Genetic information: A metaphor in search of a theory. Philosophy of Science, 68(3), 394-412.

Kaplan, M. (2000). The limits and lies of human genetics research. London: Routledge.

Maynard, S. (2000).The concept of information in biology. Philosophy of Science, 68(2), 177-194.

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