Summary - Are Modules Innate?

The Adaptable Mind: What Neuroplasticity and Neural Reuse Tell Us about Language and Cognition - John Zerilli 2021

Are Modules Innate?

The brain’s plasticity is definitely constrained. While plasticity is an intrinsic and crucial feature of the nervous system, it is important to emphasize that the brain is not open-endedly plastic. Furthermore, a brain region can be innate in a relatively strong sense and yet fail to reach the threshold characteristics of a genuine module. A bias, after all, is not a specialization.

1 I say broadly speaking because strictly speaking, canalization results in a “buffered” developmental pathway in which insensitivity with respect to some environmental factor is the result of a specific mechanism or evolutionary adaptation geared to that end (e.g., Waddington 1953, 1955). But insensitivity simpliciter can be the result of an environmental factor’s having no causal influence on a trait at all. A fly’s wing pattern could be insensitive to certain pesticides without having been buffered against them by natural selection; e.g., because the pesticides concerned do not interact causally with the fly’s development in any way (O’Neill 2015).

2 Moreover, a trait’s sensitivity with respect to a set of experiences at one stage of development does not preclude its being insensitive with respect to the same experiences at an earlier stage (Kolb et al. 2001, pp. 223, 225; Mameli & Bateson 2006, p. 169; see also my § 2.3).

3 The examples in this paragraph and the next are drawn from Laurence and Margolis (2015).

4 Anderson (2014) hypothesizes such a suite of mechanisms under the label “search.” I return to this idea in Chapter 7, with a twist of my own.