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Inherited abilities

Return to "Theory of knowledge"


Immanuel Kant claimed existence of propositions that were "synthetic a priori" i.e. combined parts of "absolute knowedge" concerning the world that were not based on observations. Existence of such propositions has been questioned and nobody have succeeded in giving a clear and trustworthy example of such a proposition.

A quick inference is that as we cannot claim existence of "absolute knowledge" regarding our perceived world, we are of course unable to claim existence of combinations of such knowledge. But philosophy does not favor quick inferences.

Two exemples of longer texts with a similar conclusion:

- Boghossian P, Peacocke C - New Essays on the A Priori, Clarendon (2000).
- Kitcher P - A priori, ch.1 in Guyer P (Ed) - Kant and Modern Philosophy, Cambridge UP (2006).

In order to shed further light on the topic, an possible longer inference is discussed below: The concepts, closest to "synthetic a priori" arguments are statements about inherited abilities


Does inherited abilities demonstrate "synthetic a priori" arguments?


We may observe that humans, like other animals, show inherited abilities. Some examples:

•  body functions like ability to grow,
•  feelings, that increases our abilities to cooperate with others
•  ball sense
•  herding ability in sheep dogs

A couple of supposed abilities are discussed in detail further below.

These abilities are examples of adaptation to the world and they increase our possibilities to survive. In case the world have appeared as completely different, our abilities would very likely be quite different.

At least some of these abilities hence contain information of our world, which may be expressed as "knowledge" about the world. Are such abilities hence obtained independent of experience, i.e. knowledge that is "synthetic a priori"? Are they examples of that the concept "synthetic a priori" may be a meaningful term?


Knowledge about the world can only be based on observations


If we accept evolution as described by e.g. Darwin, we can see inherited abilities as results of an evolutionary process. Abilities that increase our survival are spread to the offspring of survivors. This may be expressed that experiences drawn by our ancestors are stored in our genes, differentiating them from common experiences that are stored in our brains.

Abilities are then examples of Kant's "knowledge" a posteriori for the species, but they appear to be a priori for the individual.

Below this is illustrated by two examples that may be regarded as inherited abilities:


Fear of snakes


Suppose that humans have an inherited ability involving fear of snakes. It is possible that such fear is to a certain extent learned (Mineka 1993) but here I assume that it is at least partly inherited.

Mineka and Cook (1993) - Mechanisms Involved in the Observational Conditioning of Fear, J. Experimental Psychology: General, Vol.122:1, 23-38

According to the evolution theory, fear of snakes developed when a prehuman by gradual or random mutations got fear of snakes built into its genes. In a world full of poisonous snakes, the offspring from this prehuman showed a higher probability to survive, compared to others that had not acquired fear of snakes, and whose genes were not propagated due to an "undesirable effect of snake venom".


Fear of snakes are based on that snakes are observed as dangerous


Increased survival and reproduction of humans with snake fear may hence be expressed as a result of experience of that snakes are dangerous ("knowledge" a posteriori"). In case snakes in our world had never been dangerous, we should probably never experience an internal preparedness towards fear of snakes. We should maybe have experienced snakes as cute.

Fear of snakes is hence not an example of "knowledge" about dangerous worms a priori, i.e. before dangers of worms were observed by our prehuman.

The discussion is complicated by the fact that the experience, i.e. the memories and conclusions from the observations, were not stored in a brain but, according to the evolution theory, were stored in our genes.


Value attributed to a partner - sex drive


An interesting discussion of that inherited abilities are acquired due to our perceived reality is given by "The Handicap Theory". The theory implies that individuals during the evolution have learnt to demonstrate and to appreciate signals of biological fitness.

Zahavi, J. (1975) - The Handicap Theory, Theor. Biol. 53 (1975), 205-214

An individual demonstrates high quality by showing ornaments that are unnecessary for survival only. They may demonstrate large horns or beautiful feathers, something unimportant for survival and hence consisting of a form of handicap.

By having the strength recquired to wear such unnecessary ornaments, the individual shows that it has strength in excess, more than what is needed in order to merely survive. The more demanding the ornament is to be worn, the higher is the wearer´s quality.

The individuals of the opposite sex that, from gradual or random mutations, have begun to appreciate such ornaments, get offspring with the ornament´s wearer. These acquire higher quality, compared to offspring from individuals that do not have the strength to wear such ornaments.

To wear ornaments, and to be attracted to them, is hence not something based on "knowledge" a priori. It is something that was founded in the same manner as our common experiences, with the difference that the memory is stored in our genes.


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