Nativism does not require ”arguments from animals.”

These are some comments on Rachael L. Brown’s paper, which is a criticism of Eric Margolis and Laurence’s view of nativism. Brown claims that Margolis et al. base their  support for nativism (here meaning to be domain-specificity of inputs and process mechanisms) on the argument from animals (i.e. there is sufficient evidence to believe animals have domain-specific learning systems, humans are animals hence we must have domain-specific learning systems.) And tries to show that this is the only possible argument for nativism or modularity. This is not true.

Neither Margolis et al. in their paper base nativism solely on animal evidence but, focus also, on Poverty of Stimulus; nor in the nativist literature is the main argument based on animal evidence.  Even those who argue for domain-specific cognitive systems in humans with assistance of non-human animal data do so in a limited way and do not “infer” the value of nativism from it. For example, C.R. Gallistel states that, “”it is not to argue that an account of cognitive development should use animal models of learning. Rather, it is to take advantage of developments in this area that provide insights into the question of how to characterize cognitive development.” (“Lessons from animal learning for the study of cognitive development”)

Brown does try to argue that there are not enough “developments in this area”  to take insights from. But provides only references to “recent empirical advances” supporting associationist domain-general characterization, while admitting these are only partial support to discard nativism in animal learning. The section on inferences from the phylogenetic tree, while being interesting in its own right does not strengthen the empiricist argument because most nativist formulations do not use this kind of inferences (see Gallistel’s paper).

So, if nativism does not require argument from animals, what gives it support? As pointed out above, Poverty of Stimulus can support some formulation of domain-specificity of inputs and processes. The evidence also comes from exceptional cases of language learning and use, notably Neil Smith’s work Christopher, a polyglot savant.

Brown’s paper is important for pointing out the challenges with phylogenetic inferences and the possibility of arguments for domain-general explanations of birdsongs and filial imprinting. But, I believe it fails to establish how her case, as nativism is not dependent on factors she is focusing on.

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