w_tecumseh_fitch's picture
Professor of Cognitive Biology, University of Vienna; Author, The Evolution of Language
An Instinct to Learn

One of the most pernicious misconceptions in cognitive science is the belief in a dichotomy between nature and nurture. Many psychologists, linguists and social scientists, along with the popular press, continue to treat nature and nurture as combatting ideologies, rather than complementary perspectives. For such people, the idea that something isboth "innate" and "learned", or both "biological" and "cultural", is an absurdity. Yet most biologists today recognize that understanding behavior requires that we understand the interaction between inborn cognitive processes (e.g. learning and memory) and individual experience. This is particularly true in human behaviour, since the capacities for language and culture are some of the key adaptations of our species, and involve irreducible elements of both biology and environment, of both nature and nurture.

The antidote to "nature versus nurture" thinking is to recognize the existence, and importance, of "instincts to learn". This phrase was introduced by Peter Marler, one of the fathers of birdsong research. A young songbird, while still in the nest, eagerly listens to adults of its own species sing. Months later, having fledged, it begins singing itself, and shapes its own initial sonic gropings to the template provided by those stored memories.  During this period of "subsong" the bird gradually refines and perfects its own song, until by adulthood it is ready to defend a territory and attract mates with its own, perhaps unique, species-typical song. 

Songbird vocal learning is the classic example of an instinct to learn.  The songbird's drive to listen, and to sing, and to shape its song to that which it heard, is all instinctive.  The bird needs no tutelage, nor feedback from its parents, to go through these stages.  Nonetheless, the actual song that it sings is learned, passed culturally from generation to generation.  Birds have local dialects, varying randomly from region to region.  If the young bird hears no song, it will produce only an impoverished squawking, not a typical song.

Importantly, this capacity for vocal learning is only true of some birds, like songbirds and parrots. Other bird species, like seagulls, chickens or owls, do not learn their vocalizations: rather, their calls develop reliably in the absence of any acoustic input.  The calls of such birds are truly instinctive, rather than learned.  But for those birds capable of vocal learning, the song that an adult bird sings is the result of a complex interplay between instinct (to listen, to rehearse, and to perfect) and learning (matching the songs of adults of its species).
It is interesting, and perhaps surprising, to realize that most mammals do not have a capacity for complex vocal learning of this sort.  Current research suggests that, aside from humans, only marine mammals (whales, dolphins, seals…), bats, and elephants have this ability.  Among primates, humans appear to be the only species that can hear new sounds in the environment, and then reproduce them.  Our ability to do this seems to depend on a babbling stage during infancy, a period of vocal playfulness that is as instinctual as the young bird's subsong.  During this stage, we appear to fine tune our vocal control so that, as children, we can hear and reproduce the words and phrases of our adult caregivers.
So is human language an instinct, or learned? The question, presupposing a dichotomy, is intrinsically misleading.  Every word that any human speaks, in any of our species' 6000 languages, has been learned.   And yet the capacity to learn that language is a human instinct, something that every normal human child is born with, and that no chimpanzee or gorilla possesses. 

The instinct to learn language is, indeed, innate (meaning simply that it reliably develops in our species), even though every language is learned.  As Darwin put it in Descent of Man, "language is an art, like brewing or baking; but … certainly is not a true instinct, for every language has to be learnt.  It differs, however, widely from all ordinary arts, for man has an instinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children; whilst no child has an instinctive tendency to brew, bake, or write."
And what of culture? For many, human culture seems the very antithesis of "instinct". And yet it must be true that language plays a key role in every human culture. Language is the primary medium for the passing on of historically-accumulated knowledge, tastes, biases and styles that makes each of our human tribes and nations its own unique and precious entity.  And if human language is best conceived of as an instinct to learn, why not culture itself? 
The past decade has seen a remarkable unveiling of our human genetic and neural makeup, and the coming decade promises even more remarkable breakthroughs.  Each of us six billion humans is genetically unique (with the fascinating exception of identical twins).  For each of us, our unique genetic makeup influences, but does not determine, what we are. 
If we are to grapple earnestly and effectively with the reality of human biology and genetics, we will need to jettison outmoded dichotomies like the traditional distinction between nature and nurture.  In their place, we will need to embrace the reality of the many instincts to learn (language, music, dance, culture…) that make us human.  
I conclude that the dichotomy-denying phrase "instinct to learn" deserves a place in the cognitive toolkit of everyone who hopes, in the coming age of individual genomes, to understand human culture and human nature in the context of human biology.  Human language, and human culture, are not instincts — but they are instincts to learn.