Haidt: A Note On Innateness

  • Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Kindle Locations 2379-2397). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


It used to be risky for a scientist to assert that anything about human behavior was innate. To back up such claims, you had to show that the trait was hardwired, unchangeable by experience, and found in all cultures. With that definition, not much is innate, aside from a few infant reflexes such as that cute thing they do when you put one finger into their little hands. If you proposed that anything more complex than that was innate— particularly a sex difference— you’d be told that there was a tribe somewhere on Earth that didn’t show the trait, so therefore it’s not innate.

We’ve advanced a lot since the 1970s in our understanding of the brain, and now we know that traits can be innate without being either hardwired or universal. As the neuroscientist Gary Marcus explains, “Nature bestows upon the newborn a considerably complex brain, but one that is best seen as prewired— flexible and subject to change— rather than hardwired, fixed, and immutable.” 2

To replace wiring diagrams, Marcus suggests a better analogy: The brain is like a book, the first draft of which is written by the genes during fetal development. No chapters are complete at birth, and some are just rough outlines waiting to be filled in during childhood. But not a single chapter— be it on sexuality, language, food preferences, or morality— consists of blank pages on which a society can inscribe any conceivable set of words. Marcus’s analogy leads to the best definition of innateness I have ever seen:

Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises.… “Built-in” does not mean unmalleable; it means “organized in advance of experience.” 3

The list of five moral foundations was my first attempt to specify how the righteous mind was “organized in advance of experience.” But Moral Foundations Theory also tries to explain how that first draft gets revised during childhood to produce the diversity of moralities that we find across cultures— and across the political spectrum.


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