Innateness is for animals

Innate or acquired? Genes or culture? Nature or nurture? Biological or psychological? People are inveterately fond of trying to divide human capacities into two sorts. Commentators often seem to think that determining which capacity goes in which box is the main preoccupation of the evolutionary human sciences. (And because there is ‘evolutionary’ in the name, they think the evolutionary human sciences must be about claiming capacities for the innate/genes/nature side that the social sciences had wanted to put in acquired/culture/nurture; not really.)

In fact, innate/acquired, nature/nurture sorting is not something most of us are especially interested in. Our main hustle is that it is always both, rendering the distinction (at least as applied to mature adult capacities) somewhere between arcane and unhelpful. If it’s acquired, it’s because there are innate resources that make this possible; if it’s culture, it’s because the human genome enables this possibility, and so on. We are not interested in sorting, but in figuring out how and why things actually work. To butcher the famous exchange from The African Queen: the nature/nurture distinction, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.

But still, the widespread desire to sort capacities into two kinds persists. Why? Philosophers who have examined the problem agree that the innate/acquired dichotomy, and its companion nature/nurture, are folk or lay concepts: distinctions didn’t originally arise from formal scientific enquiry, and lack clear definitions in most people’s minds. Many but not all scientific constructs begin life as folk concepts: ‘water’ did, for example, but ‘the Higgs boson’ did not. Folk concepts can go on to give rise to useful scientific concepts. There is genuine debate in philosophy about whether a useful scientific concept of innateness can be constructed, and if so what it should be (see e.g. here and here). But regardless of how this debate is resolved, we can ask where the folk concept of innateness comes from and how people use it.

In a new paper, I argue that the folk concept of innateness is made for animals. More exactly, we have a specialized, early-developing way of thinking about animals (this way of thinking is sometimes known as intuitive biology). The folk concept of innateness comes as part of its workings. When we think about animals, we are typically concerned to rapidly learn and make available the answers to a few highly pertinent questions. First, what kind is it? Second, what’s the main generalization I need to know about that kind (will it eat me, for example, or can I eat it)? The cognition that we develop to deliver these functions is built for speed, not subtlety. It assumes that all the members of the kind are for important purposes the same (if one tiger’s dangerous, they all are), and that their key properties come straight out of some inner essence not modifiable by circumstance (doesn’t matter if you raise a tiger with lambs, it’s going to try to eat them sooner or later). When people (informally) describe a capacity as ‘innate’, part of our ‘nature’ and so on, what they mean is just this: the capacity is typical (it’s not just the one individual that has it, but the whole of their kind), and fixed (that capacity is not modifiable by circumstance). In other words, they think about that capacity the way they think about the capacities of animals.

Unfortunately, animals are not really like this. In fact, in animal species, individuals are different from one another, and far from interchangeable. This is so counter most people’s perceived experience that Darwin had to spend dozens of pages in the first part of On the Origin of Species convincing the reader that it was the case, since variation was so crucial to how his idea of natural selection worked. Moreover, animal behaviour is actually very strategic and flexible: it could well be that by raising your tiger differently, you end up with a very differently-behaving beast. But, intuitive biology is not there to make us good zoologists. It’s there to make us eat edible things and not get eaten by inedible ones.

The idea that the folk concept of innateness is part of intuitive biology is not new. All my paper does is to test some obvious predictions arising from it. Working with UK-based non-academic volunteers, I found that how ‘innate’ people reckon a capacity is in humans is almost perfectly predicted by the extent to which they think other animals have it too (figure 1A). If you present people with the same capacity possessed either by an animal or a human, they think it is more likely to be innate in the animal case (with a huge effect size; figure 1B). And, even, if you tell people about an alien creature and tell them that one of its capacities is innate, they imagine that alien as less human-like than if you tell them that it had to learn its capacity, or tell them nothing at all (figure 1C). So, there is a special connection between ‘X being an animal’ and ‘X’s capacities seeming ‘innate’’.

Figure 1. Some results from my studies. A. People think a capacity is innate in humans to the extent they also think it is present in other animals. B. People think the same capacity is more likely to be innate when it is found in an animal than a human. C. People think an alien is less human-like if they are told that one of its capacities is innate than if not told this.

If innateness is for animals, then we should intuitively think the capacities of humans are not innate. Indeed, several studies have shown that lay people have this prior (here and here). This is because our dominant mode for thinking about people is quite different from our dominant mode for thinking about animals. With other people, we are generally trying to manage some kind of ongoing, individual-to-individual dynamic relationship, for example of collaboration or competition. To be able to do this, you need to track individual persons, not kinds, and track what they currently know, believe, possess or are constrained by, not rely on a few context-free generalities. In other words, when we think about people (for which we use intuitive psychology), we naturally incline to thinking about what is idiosyncratic, thoughtful and contingent. Whereas for animals we pay insufficient spontaneous attention to their uniqueness and context, for humans we only pay attention to that. This sense of the idiosyncratic, the thoughtful and the contingent is what people seem to mean when they talk informally about behaviours being not innate, not in the genes, not biological and so on.

However, my participants readily assented that some capacities of humans were innate, capacities like basic sensing, moving, circadian rhythms, and homeostatic drives like hunger and thirst. These are the things about humans that you can still think about using intuitive biology: the capacities of humans qua animals. They are not the things that affect the depth of a friendship or the bitterness of a dispute; the things about people qua social agents. We tend to view other people as dual-aspect beings, having basic, embodied animal features, and complex, idiosyncratic person features; we think about these, respectively, with intuitive biology and intuitive psychology. We kind of know that these are two aspects of the same entity, but the link between the two aspects can go a bit screwy sometimes, leading to beliefs in dualism, ethereal agents, souls that leave bodies, and other shenanigans. What is often odd and jangling for people is when the language of animal bodies (genes, evolution and so on) is used in explanations for the capacities of individual people as social agents (their knowledge, decisions, and morality). That feels like it can’t be right.

This is rather a problem for researchers like me, who believe that our embodied natures and our capacities as social agents have rather a lot to do with one another (indeed, are descriptions of the same thing). If you talk about an evolved, innate or biological basis to human moral and social capacities, your audience may take you to be saying something quite different from what you intend. Specifically, you make be taken as wanting to reduce humans to beasts; to deny the critical influence of context; or to argue that human social systems must always come out the same. None of these actually follows from saying that a capacity has an evolved, innate or biological basis. It’s the folk concepts bleeding through into the scientific debate. And folk concepts, Mr. Allnut, are what we are here to rise above.  

Diamond open access journals in psychology and adjacent areas

Here is a list of diamond open access journals that may be of interest if you are publishing in psychology and adjacent fields. Diamond open access journals provide academic publishing services for free both to the reader (no paywall), and the author (no article processing fee). By switching to diamond open access journals, researchers could greatly reduce the costs of publishing to the sector, freeing up funds for jobs and grants (more on diamond open access and the arguments for it here).

The first table consists of journals that specifically include psychology or cognitive science in their mission statement. The second consists of journals in related but relevant fields. I have indicated where journals are indexed on Scopus, since findability is often an important motivation for authors. Many of the journals are indexed in other places too. Where possible I have indicated something about financial and institutional backing. A major contributor in the psychology diamond open access space is the Leibniz Institute for Psychology (ZPID), which funds the Psychology Open platform as part of its open science mission. There are some other journals on that platform I have not put into the table, mainly because their missions were more specialized.

I would like to dynamically update the list, and also extend it to a broader range of subject areas. Please email me if you have suggestions. Thanks to Shelina Vishram I have already added a number of health-related journals to table 2.

Creating these tables, I am struck just how wide our range of diamond options already is, and how interesting and engaged a lot of the mission statements are.

Open Mind“covers the broad array of content areas within cognitive science, using approaches from cognitive psychology, computer science and mathematical psychology, cognitive neuroscience and neuropsychology, comparative psychology and behavioral anthropology, decision sciences, and theoretical and experimental linguistics.”Currently supported by MIT Press and MIT libraries. Since 2017. Indexed on Scopus.
Europe’s Journal of Psychology“publishing original studies, research, critical contributions, interviews and book reviews written by and intended for psychologists worldwide…a generalist and eclectic approach”. Recent editorial statement here. ZPIDSince 2005. Indexed on Scopus. Accepts registered reports.
Journal of Social and Political Psychology“publishes articles that substantially engage with and advance the understanding of social or political problems, their reduction, and the promotion of social justice, from social or political psychological perspectives”. More here. ZPIDSince 2013. Indexed on Scopus.
Social Psychological Bulletin“original empirical research, theoretical review papers, scientific debates, and methodological contributions in the field of basic and applied social psychology. SPB actively promotes…open science…. integrative approach to social psychological science and is committed to discussing timely social issues.” ZPIDBefore 2018 was Psychologia Społeczna. Indexed on Scopus.
Interpersona: An International Journal on Personal RelationshipsResearch “on all kinds of human relationships, from weak ties to close relationships, and their relations with society and culture”. Interdisciplinary approach spans psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology, health etc. See here. ZPID on behalf of Grupo de estudos em Avaliação, Terapia e EmoçõesSince 2007. Indexed on Scopus.
Global Environmental Psychology“Theoretical and applied work on the relationship between people and their environment with a psychological emphasis”. More here. ZPID with International Association of People-Environment Studies and Deutsche Gesellschaft für PsychologieBrand new journal, open for submissions.
Clinical Psychology in Europe“We aim to publish contributions that reflect the current developments in clinical psychology, this can include stimulating papers that help towards the developments of clinical psychology research and interventions as well as advancements in diagnostics, classification, developments in treatments and improving outcomes. “ZPID with European Association of Clinical Psychology and Psychological TreatmentSince 2019. Indexed on Scopus and Pubmed.
Personality Science“Premier outlet for insights on personality and individual differences – cutting across traditional disciplinary boundaries….to unify the nascent field of a personality-centered science by bringing together work from different disciplines and perspectives even outside of psychology.”ZPID. Official journal of the European Association of Personality Science.New in 2020.
Methodology: European Journal of Research Methods for the Behavioral and Social Sciences.  “A platform for interdisciplinary exchange of methodological research and applications in [psychology, sociology, economics, pol. sci. etc.], including new methodological approaches, review articles, software information, and instructional papers that can be used in teaching. Three main disciplines are covered: data analysis, research methodology, and psychometrics.”ZPID. Official organ of the European Association of Methodology. Coalesced in 2020 from Metodologia de las Ciencias del Comportamiento and Methods of Psychological Research-Online. Indexed in Scopus.
Measurement Instruments for the Social Sciences “publishes high-quality, open access measurement instruments intended for scientific use across various disciplines (e.g., sociology, psychology, education, political science, economics etc.).. advances social science measurement and methodology also through systematic reviews, test reviews, meeting reports, and best practice approaches.”ZPIDSince 2019.
Table 1: Some diamond open access publishing options in psychology.

Biolinguistics“A peer-reviewed journal exploring (theoretical) linguistics that takes the biological foundations of human language seriously.”ZPIDSince 2007. Indexed on Scopus
Dialectica“A general analytic philosophy journal and the official organ of the European Society of Analytic Philosophy.”Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences inter aliaHas existed since 1947. Became diamond in 2023. Indexed on Scopus.
Peer Community JournalJournal allied to the constellation of ‘Peer Communities in….’ (PCIs). The PCIs do the peer reviewing and the Peer Community Journal will then publish the version of record. Currently there are PCIs in Neuroscience, Evolutionary Biology, Health and Movement Science, Ecology, Mathematical and Computational Biology, Network Science, Organizational Studies, and others. The list will grow in future. 150 supporting organisations including the CNRS, INRAE, INSERM and other major French funders, plus many universities in several countries.If your paper is reviewed by a PCI you can still send it to a different journal if you wish. Many other journals will also accept the PCI’s reviewing process. See here.
Asian Journal of Social Health and Behavior“empirical and theoretical contributions studies related to mental health and addiction, social support, socioeconomic inequality, behavior change techniques, health policy and clinical practice”Social Determinants of Health Research Center, Qazvin, Iran. Indexed on Scopus. Formerly Social Health and Behavior.
Health Behavior Research“dedicated to the translation of research to advance policy, program planning, and/or practice relevant to behavior change.”Journal of the American Academy of Health Behavior. Since 2017.
European Journal of Health Communication“open access journal for high-quality health communication research with relevance to Europe or specific European countries”Universities of Zurich and Amsterdam.Since 2020.
JAMK Journal of Health and Social Studies“a forum for original research and scholarship in the field of health care and social studies about health care delivery, care management, organization, labor force, policy, decision making along with research methods relevant to nurses, social workers and other related professionals”JAMK University of Applied Sciences (Finland)You can write your paper in Finnish (but you don’t have to). Since 2018.
Public Health Research and Practice“publishes innovative, high-quality papers that inform public health policy and practice, paying particular attention to innovations, data and perspectives from policy and practice”Sax Institute (an Australian public health not-for-profit)Indexed on Scopus. Continues the established New South Wales Public Health Bulletin
Table 2: Some diamond open access publishing options in fields adjacent to psychology.

The political economy of scientific publishing, and the promise of diamond open access

The claim that scientific publishing is broken is not even surprising any more. There are a number of different problems. Some of these are epistemic: a large number of bad or totally meaningless articles is published every year, diluting the credibility of science; undue weight is given to sexy claims in a small number of shiny journals, whose articles are disproportionately likely to be discovered to be misleading or even fraudulent; negative results still often go unpublished, and so on. Some of the big problems are instead economic, and that’s what I want to talk about here.

Scientific publishing is hugely concentrated in the hands of a few big corporations: Wiley-Blackwell, Springer Nature, Elsevier, SAGE and Taylor & Francis have been estimated to control 75% of the market. More importantly, the profit margins of these companies are really large: estimates vary, but 30-50% for the major corporations in the sector is is typical. This gives them vastly higher profit margins than Apple, Google, Coca-Cola etc. Your local supermarket chain probably has a profit margin of a few percentage points at most.

One estimate of the size of the academic publishing industry I found is $19 billion per year. Applying a 40% profit proportion to this, we can say in a back-of-an-envelope way that international academia is giving away about $7.5 billion a year to a few large corporations, not to cover the costs of the services those corporations provide, but as rent. And you know how it is: $7.5 billion here, $7.5 billion there, and soon you can be talking real money. It is of the same order as the expenditure of the US National Science Foundation for 2020 ($8.3 billion). Europe’s premier research funder, the ERC, only gives out €2.2 billion in grants per year. One careful estimate was that, of the money spent on the social sciences in Austria, about a fourth went to servicing the publishing industry. And of course, this is not really our money: it is money from governments, effectively a public subsidy for a public good, a big chunk of which is going unproductively into corporate coffers. Governments could be getting billions of dollars more research for their money, and we could be giving more jobs to our students and post-docs; or they could get the same amount of research for a smaller subsidy and build more bike lanes.

Corporate profit was not always involved in the dissemination of academic knowledge, nor is it necessary that it be so. For those of you that do not know the history, the idea that academic communication belonged to corporations, and could be monetised for profit, was substantially due to Czech-British tycoon Robert Maxwell. He paved the way – in a context of rapid growth of academia in the second half of the twentieth century- by wooing academics, creating journals and charging subscriptions to access them (the story is told here). Fast forward, and funders and authors rightly began to baulk at publicly funded epistemic labour being sequestered behind paywalls. The resulting ‘open access’ movement has helped with the problem of reader access by bringing down the paywalls, but it has not helped with the problem of corporate rents. The big publishers still own the titles. They now charge ‘article processing fees’ to authors, on average a couple of thousand dollars, and protect their profit margins that way.

In an efficiently functioning market, these rates of profit could not exist. Why? Because other corporations should enter the market, offering the same service for a lower price and just a 30% profit rate (still not bad!), and capture the market; then still others should come in with a lower price still and just a 20% profit rate….and so on, until the rate of profit is delta: the minimal amount of profit that gets a capitalist out of bed in the morning. Academics would then be getting their publishing services for just fractionally above what it really costs to produce them. That’s how markets are supposed to work, and why certain people are so keen on them. But it is certainly not working here. Why?

Academics, when they submit a paper for publication, are not just looking for a company that will make a nice PDF and put it online on a reliable server. They could do that themselves. They are paying for someone to credential it: give it a status of being epistemically reliable, important, and generally worth reading. The irony of academic publishing is that the actual credentialling labour – the careful reading by an editor, the independent peer reviewing, the accumulated culture of good practice in the field – is not provided or even paid for by the profitable publishing corporation. It is done by other academics who do it without payment, or more precisely using the time already paid for by their university and government employers. The fruit of this labour is then privatised and sold by the publishing corporations we have become entangled with. The part of the value of publishing an article that it is not given for free by academic volunteers might be as low as a couple of hundred euros.

Because the credentialing value of a journal depends heavily on its established reputation in the field, authors are not elastic to price: they will not readily substitute a newer, cheaper journal for an existing over-priced one. When people are not elastic to price, markets fail, and socially efficient solutions are not found. Authors are, effectively, conservative and myopic: they care about getting this paper published and looking as good, from a credentialling perspective, as possible; this means they are doomed to stick with the established journals even at massive personal and collective cost (and, for the most prestigious credentialing by the shiniest journals, the article processing charge may be several-fold higher than the average). The collective consequences for our sector when we are all individually myopic in this way are not something we have thought about enough.

What we face is, exactly, the famous tragedy of the commons. If I get one paper into a reputed but overpriced journal in my field, all of the reputational and career benefit of this accrues to me privately (including to my students and co-authors: we are often doing this out of quite admirable concern for those close to us). However, the cost – that academia collectively continues to waste millions of dollars paying more for its publishing services than it needs to – is evenly distributed across the whole of the sector. For example, if spend some funds from a French funder on article processing charges, that funder can give out fewer grants. But that loss is distributed across all the researchers in France, whereas the reputational benefit of my publication flows wholly to me. So we end up with a situation where the commons – the public pot of research funding – is overgrazed, and the publishing corporations are getting fat.

The good news is that although common good resources are always vulnerable, tragedies are not actually inevitable. Elinor Ostrom received a Nobel memorial prize, indeed, for showing that, in fact, communities throughout the world do find various ways of making their commons sustainable (and, as she is famous for saying, if it works in practice, you can make it work in theory). We should be able to do likewise. It would be quite logical (helpful, even) for our funders and employers simply not to allow us to use their money or time on activities that create profit for publishing corporations. My employer, the CNRS, has made clear that whilst it wants us to publish our work open access, it does not want us to pay article processing fees (instead, it, along with other funders in Europe, wants to support not-for-profit journals directly). I hope other employers will follow suit, and even take a stronger line on this. One of the things about tragedies of the commons is that you do sometimes need to impose some constraints on individual behaviour, for the sake of the public good (and to make those constraints common knowledge in the form of norms and rules). This is obvious, since it is exactly the uncoordinated myopic activities of individuals that produces the tragedy in the first place.

The big question, of course, is: if not the status quo, then what? One of the issues is that there are multiple ideas in circulation about how to reform scientific publication, whereas we need to coordinate on one. Perhaps eventually we can abandon the plethora of different journals altogether, in favour of a single archive doing the combined job of preprint server, peer review forum, and publication venue of record. There are a few contenders for this already in operation, notably Peer Community In, which started out with a focus in ecology and biology, but can expand organically into any area. Others are the European Union’s Open Research Europe and the Wellcome Trust’s Wellcome Open Research. These latter two are restricted, for now, to reports of research that was funded by the respective organisations. However, whilst waiting for such a universal system to emerge, something we can all do rapidly, with minimal change to our working practices, is to support diamond open access journals as a first resort.

A diamond open access journal is a journal that is free to read, and does not charge authors any article processing fees. Where then is the money coming from, you might reasonably ask. The answer varies from journal to journal, but the actual costs, if much of the editorial work and peer reviewing is done by academics for free, are pretty modest, often amounting to editorial assistance and server space, plus the use of one of the open-source or not-for-profit content management platforms that already exist. Some funders (the CNRS included) figure that they can simply fund or co-fund these journals directly, and still save money compared to giving their people money to pay article processing fees to the big corporations. Other bodies support diamond journals just as a contribution to the common intellectual good. In the psychological sciences, quite a few of these journals exist already, are widely indexed, and are ready for us to use. I have published a separate post listing the main ones I know about and where to find them. If we can transition to using diamond open access journals over the next five years, we will free up an enormous saving for our funders, a saving that they will hopefully plough back in to jobs for young researchers, among other things. And, I would add, it would free us from the epistemic and other distortions our entanglement with for-profit publication has brought about too.

Something you might well be saying, and I would understand, is: that sounds very high-minded, but my student/post-doc/collaborator needs a job, and it will make a huge difference to the way they are evaluated to get their paper in X or Y traditional high-esteem journal. I (or they) just can’t afford to take the broader view. I absolutely recognise it from my own life. I would however make three points.

The first is that at least we could at least have the conversation every time we publish a paper. There are indeed times – perhaps many times, at first – where we will conclude that there are strong grounds for going with this or that traditional journal. Certainly, this is still happening in my life. But it need not be every time; sometimes all your co-authors have tenure or have already achieved visibility in that space. Maybe we can allow ourselves a certain number of dirty submissions a year, but go diamond for the rest. Corporate publishing sobriety should at least be part of the discussion, alongside other factors. Interestingly, during all my years in academia, with many dozens of co-authors, these kinds of ethical and political issues have almost never cropped up in discussions of publication strategy. It feels like we ought to try to change that.

Second, although the CV advantage of a prestigious or established journal is a real thing, it’s maybe not that big, in most cases. Sure, a paper in Nature, Science or PNAS is going to make people look twice; but do evaluators really notice or care about the difference between Cognition (corporate) and Open Mind (diamond), between Social Psychological and Personality Science (corporate) and the Journal of Social and Political Psychology (diamond)? The magnitude of the reputational difference is probably small–and might not even be in the direction you think.

Which leads me to my final point: the way people are evaluated is itself constantly evolving. The journals that are well-reputed now are not those that were well-reputed a decade ago, partly because of the choices we made. Without going all Anthony Giddens on you, we structure the field of credential value as well as being structured by it. A decade ago, people didn’t want to pre-register or share their data as they thought it could disadvantage them. What a weird idea that seems now, when it is common knowledge that good open science practices are one of the first things employers look for. Likewise, there could soon be a job market and professional premium for having adopted a thoughtful politique de la publication. We could help accelerate this cultural change. Senior people could go out of their way to support newer diamond initiatives, either with their submissions or their editorial activities.

There is always a risk, when you publish in a newer or unknown journal, that people think your paper is there because it was rejected by the better known ones. Something we could do, on our websites and in our talks, is to point out positive reasons why we choose this outlet (‘Journal of first choice’; ‘we chose this journal because it provides fee-free access to both readers and authors’, ‘we chose this journal because it is a non-profit that keeps resources within the scientific community’, ‘We chose it because of its commitment to open science and epistemology’, etc.). As we become more socially aware about the consequences of our publishing behaviour, it could be good to justify our our publication decisions in the way that we have become used to justifying sample sizes.

Companion post: list of diamond open access journals in psychology.