Biological cognitive development

Biological development and behavioral/cognitive development

(Développement biologique et développement cognitif)

Workshop – IHPST

Salle de conférences

November 15, 2014

Baby brain


With Denis Forest, Jean Gayon, Paul Griffiths, Thierry Hoquet, Lucie Laplane, Virginie Orgonzo, Arnaud Pocheville, Thomas Pradeu, Karine Prévot, Valentine Reynaud, Nicholas Shea, Karola Stotz and Michel Vervoort.

Salle de conférences de l’IHPST, 13 rue du Four 75006 Paris



With the support of the Junior IUF chair of Thomas Pradeu.


Workshop organised by Thomas Pradeu (Paris Sorbonne University, IUF, CIRID, CNRS & University of Bordeaux)

and Valentine Reynaud (Lyon 3 University, Irphil)





Morning Chair: Denis Forest (Paris-Ouest Nanterre University)


9:30 Opening remarks (Denis Forest, Valentine Reynaud & Thomas Pradeu)

Introduction to the workshop, by Valentine Reynaud (PDF file)


10:00-10:45 Paul Griffiths (University of Sydney and University of Exeter)


‘Proximate and Ultimate Information’ (PDF file)




Nicholas Shea has defended the view that development is explained by information in the genome and in other inherited developmental resources (Shea, 2012). I have argued that he chooses an account of information – teleosemantics – that is not suited to this purpose (Griffiths, 2013). Teleosemantics produces an ‘ultimate’ form of information which finds its natural home in evolutionary explanations. But it is not a ‘proximate’ form of information, and so it is unsuited to play a role in synchronic mechanistic explanations.

There are three prominent approaches to information in current philosophy of biology: teleosemantics (e.g. Shea, 2007), transmission information (e.g. Bergstrom & Rosvall, 2009), and the signalling approach (e.g. Calcott, In Press). It is striking that all three approaches primarily use informational constructs to illuminate the evolution of living systems.

My own recent work, with various collaborators, has focused on whether there is a distinctive and important feature of how living systems function, as opposed to how they evolve, that is best stated using some measure(s) of information. The term ‘Crick information’ (Griffiths & Stotz, 2013) is used to refer to the way that the biological specificity of a gene product can be causally explained by some of the factors involved in its production. If a cause makes a causally specific (Woodward, 2010, Griffiths, Pocheville, Calcott, Stotz, Kim and Knight, submitted) difference to the structure of a biomolecule, then it contains Crick information for that molecule. We argue that a narrow, causal sense of information like this one is all that is needed to vindicate the idea that living systems are distinctively informational systems.

I explain some of this work in more detail, and explore how information in this sense can feature in biological and cognitive developmental explanations.


Bergstrom, C., & Rosvall, M. (2009). The transmission sense of information. Biology and Philosophy, 26(2), 159-176. doi: 10.1007/s10539-009-9180-z

Calcott, B. (In Press). The Creation and Re-use of Information in Gene Regulatory Networks. Philosophy of Science.

Griffiths, P. E. (2013). Lehrman’s dictum: Information and explanation in developmental biology. Developmental Psychobiology, 55(1), 22-32.

Griffiths, P. E., & Stotz, K. (2013). Genetics and Philosophy: An introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Griffiths,  P.E., Pocheville, A., Calcott, B., Stotz, K., Kim, H., and Knight, R. Measuring Causal Specificity. Submitted to Philosophy of Science.

Shea, N. (2007). Representation in the genome and in other inheritance systems. Biology and Philosophy, 22, 313–331.

Shea, N. (2012). Inherited Representations are Read in Development. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. doi: 10.1093/bjps/axr050

Woodward, J. (2010). Causation in biology: stability, specificity, and the choice of levels of explanation. Biology & Philosophy, 25(3), 287-318.



10:45-11:00 Coffee break


11:00-12:00 Discussion of Paul Griffiths



12:00-14:00 Lunch



Afternoon Chair: Jean Gayon (IHPST & Pantheon-Sorbonne University)


14:00-14:45 Nick Shea (King's College, London)


'Innateness as Inherited Representation’ (PDF file)

This paper outlines an account of the biological information carried by inheritance systems – genetic representations and other inherited representations – and uses it to throw light on debates about innateness.  The concept of innateness is used to make inferences between various better-understood properties, like developmental canalization, evolutionary adaptation, heritability, species-typicality, and so on (‘innateness-related properties’).  This paper argues that, in non-human organisms, innateness-related properties tend to cluster together when a trait develops in reliance on a genetic representation.  The account also shows why inferences between innateness-related properties fail, especially in respect of human psychological and behavioural traits, the development of which is especially reliant on non-genetic sources of inherited representational content.



14:45-15:45 Discussion of Nick Shea


16:00-16:45 Valentine Reynaud (University of Lyon 3, Irphil)


‘Neural development, behavioural/cognitive development and innateness within developmental scenarios' (PDF file)



Within behavioural and cognitive science, the use of development is ambiguous. Some researchers think that cognitive/behavioural development does not exist since development refers only to biological development (Lorenz, 1965; Chomsky, 1980; Fodor 1998). Others identify cognitive development to learning (Catchpole et al, 2008). In both cases, their positions reflect several questionable oppositions (biology/psychology; maturation/learning; constrained/flexible processes).

I will argue that the widespread claim for ‘taking development seriously’ within biology, (Robert, 2004) ethology (Lehrman, 1953) and cognitive science (Karmiloff-Smith, 1992) has several consequences for the account of behavioural/cognitive development. First, in offering a broad account of development, it shows that development is mainly a descriptive term. Second, the unitary of development implied by the claim does not mean that there is a general theory of development. The way to study development seems rather to construct specific developmental scenarios or trajectories of given phenotypes in which neural development and behavioural/cognitive development are to be linked. I will argue that dynamic mechanistic explanations (Bechtel and Abrahamsen, 2010) can fulfil this requirement in using both cross-levels explanatory-relevant factors and primitive functional units (Morton and Frith, 2001), which can be conceived as innate capacities.


16:45:17:45 Discussion of Valentine Reynaud