Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are

Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are

by Kevin J. Mitchell

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A leading neuroscientist explains why your personal traits are more innate than you think

What makes you the way you are—and what makes each of us different from everyone else? In Innate, leading neuroscientist and popular science blogger Kevin Mitchell traces human diversity and individual differences to their deepest level: in the wiring of our brains. Deftly guiding us through important new research, including his own groundbreaking work, he explains how variations in the way our brains develop before birth strongly influence our psychology and behavior throughout our lives, shaping our personality, intelligence, sexuality, and even the way we perceive the world.

We all share a genetic program for making a human brain, and the program for making a brain like yours is specifically encoded in your DNA. But, as Mitchell explains, the way that program plays out is affected by random processes of development that manifest uniquely in each person, even identical twins. The key insight of Innate is that the combination of these developmental and genetic variations creates innate differences in how our brains are wired—differences that impact all aspects of our psychology—and this insight promises to transform the way we see the interplay of nature and nurture.

Innate also explores the genetic and neural underpinnings of disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, and epilepsy, and how our understanding of these conditions is being revolutionized. In addition, the book examines the social and ethical implications of these ideas and of new technologies that may soon offer the means to predict or manipulate human traits.

Compelling and original, Innate will change the way you think about why and how we are who we are.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691184999
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/16/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 12 MB
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About the Author

Kevin J. Mitchell is associate professor at the Smurfit Institute of Genetics and the Institute of Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin. He contributed to The Future of the Brain: Essays by the World’s Leading Neuroscientists (Princeton) and runs a popular blog, Wiring the Brain. He lives in Portmarnock, Ireland.

Read an Excerpt



* * *

How would you describe yourself? If you had to list some personality traits, say for a dating website or a job application, what words would you use? Do you consider yourself shy or outgoing? Are you cautious or reckless? Anxious or carefree? Are you creative, artistic, adventurous, stubborn, impulsive, sensitive, brave, mischievous, kind, imaginative, selfish, irresponsible, conscientious? People clearly differ in such traits and in many other aspects of their psychology — such as intelligence and sexual preference, for example. All of these things feed into making us who we are.

The question is, how do we get that way? This has been a subject of endless debate for literally thousands of years, with various prominent thinkers, from Aristotle and Plato to Pinker and Chomsky, lining up to argue for either innate differences between people or for everyone starting out with a blank slate and our psychology being shaped by experience alone. In the past century, the tradition of Freudian psychology popularized the idea that our psychological dispositions could be traced to formative childhood experiences. In many areas of modern academic sociology and psychology this belief is still widespread, though it has been extended to include cultural and environmental factors more broadly as important determinants of our characters.

But these fields have been fighting a rearguard action in recent years, against an onslaught from genetics and neuroscience, which have provided strong evidence that such traits have at least some basis in our innate biology. To some, this is a controversial position, perhaps even a morally offensive one. But really it fits with our common experience that, at some level, people just are the way they are — that they're just made that way. Certainly, any parent with more than one child will know that they start out different from each other, in many important ways that are unrelated to parenting.

This notion of innate traits is often equated with the influences of genes — indeed, "innate" and "genetic" are often used interchangeably. This idea is captured in common phrases such as "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree," or "he didn't lick it off the stones." These sayings reflect the widespread belief that many of our psychological traits are not determined solely by our upbringing but really are, to some extent at least, "in our DNA."

How that could be is the subject of this book. How could our individual natures be encoded in our genomes? What is the nature of that information and how is it expressed? That is, in a sense, just a different version of this question: How is human nature, generally, encoded in the human genome? If there is a program for making a human being with typical human nature, then our individual natures may simply be variations on that theme. In the same way, the human genome contains a program for making a being about so tall, but individual humans are taller or shorter than that due to variation in the programs encoded in their respective genomes. We will see that the existence of such variation is not only plausible — it is inevitable.


If we think about human nature generally, then we should ask, first, whether it even exists. Are there really typical characteristics that are inherent in each of us that make humans different from other animals? This question has exercised philosophers for millennia and continues to today, partly because it can be framed in many different ways. By human nature, do we mean expressed behaviors that are unique to humans and not seen in other animals? Do we mean ones that are completely universal across all members of the species? Or ones that are innate and instinctive and not dependent at all on maturation or experience? If those are the bars that are set, then not much gets over them.

But if instead we define human nature as a set of behavioral capacities or tendencies that are typical of our species, some of which may nevertheless be shared with other animals, and which may be expressed either innately or require maturation or experience to develop, then the list is long and much less contentious. Humans tend to walk upright, be active during the day, live in social groups, form relatively stable pair-bonds, rely on vision more than other senses, eat different kinds of food, and so on. A zoologist studying humans would say they are bipedal, diurnal, gregarious, monogamous, visual, and omnivorous — all of these traits are shared by some other species, but that overall profile characterizes humans.

And humans have capacities for highly dexterous movements, tool use, language, humor, problem solving, abstract thought, and so on. Many of those capacities are present to some degree in other animals, but they are vastly more developed in humans. The actual behaviors may only emerge with maturation and many depend to some extent on learning and experience, but the capacities themselves are inherent. Indeed, even our capacity to learn from experience is itself an innate trait. Though our intellect separates us from other animals — by enabling the development of language and culture, which shape all of our behaviors — our underlying nature is a product of evolution, the same as for any other species.

Simply put, humans have those species-general tendencies and capacities because they have human DNA. If we had chimp DNA or tiger DNA or aardvark DNA, we would behave like chimps or tigers or aardvarks. The essential nature of these different species is encoded in their genomes. Somehow, in the molecules of DNA in a fertilized egg from any of these species is a code or program of development that will produce an organism with its species-typical nature. Most importantly, that entails the specification of how the brain develops in such a way that wires in these behavioral tendencies and capacities. Human nature, thus defined, is encoded in our genomes and wired into our brains in just the same way.

This is not a metaphor. The different natures of these species arise from concrete differences in some physical properties of their brains. Differences in overall size, structural organization, connections between brain regions, layout of microcircuits, complement of cell types, neurochemistry, gene expression, and many other parameters all contribute in varied ways to the range of behavioral tendencies and capacities that characterize each species. It's all wired in there somehow. Human nature thus need not be merely an abstract philosophical topic — it is scientifically tractable. We can look, experimentally, at the details of how our species-typical properties are mediated in neural circuitry. And we can seek to uncover the nature of the genetic program that specifies the relevant parameters of these circuits.


To understand this genetic program, it is crucial to appreciate the way in which information is encoded in our genomes and how it gets expressed. It is not like a blueprint, where a given part of the genome contains the specifications of a corresponding part of the organism. There is not, in any normal sense of the word, a representation of the final organism contained within the DNA. Just as there is no preformed homunculus curled up inside the fertilized egg, there is no simulacrum of the organism strung out along its chromosomes. What is actually encoded is a program — a series of developmental algorithms or operations, mediated by mindless biochemical machines, that, when carried out faithfully, will result in the emergence of a human being.

This is not a reductionist view. The DNA doesn't do any of this by itself. The information in the genome has to be decoded by a cell (the fertilized egg, in the first place), which also contains important components required to kick the whole process off. And, of course, the organism has to have an environment in which to develop, and variation in environmental factors can also affect the outcome. Indeed, one of the most important capacities encoded in the genetic program is the ability of the resultant organism to respond to the environment.

Moreover, while the information to make any given organism and to keep it organized in that way is written in its genome, there is a web of causation that extends far beyond the physical sequence of its DNA. Its genome reflects the life histories of all its ancestors and the environments in which they lived. It has the particular sequence it has because individuals carrying those specific genetic variants survived and passed on their genes, while individuals with other genetic variants did not. A full map of what causes an organism to be the way it is and behave the way it does thus extends out into the world and over vast periods of time.

However, what we are after in this book is not a full understanding of how such systems work — how all those genetically encoded components interact to produce a human being with human nature. It is something subtly but crucially different — how variation in the genetic program causes variation in the outcome. Really, that's what we've been talking about when we've been comparing different species. The differences between our genomes and those of chimps or tigers or aardvarks are responsible for the differences in our respective natures.


The same can be said for differences within species. There is extensive genetic variation across the individuals in every species. Every time the DNA is copied to make a sperm or egg cell, some errors creep in. If these new mutations don't immediately kill the resultant organism or prevent it from reproducing then they can spread through the population in subsequent generations. This leads to a buildup of genetic variation, which is the basis for variation in all kinds of traits — most obviously physical ones like height or facial morphology. (Conversely, shared profiles of genetic variants are the basis for familial similarities in such traits.) Some of those genetic variants affect the program of brain development or brain function in ways that contribute to differences in behavioral tendencies or capacities.

We know this is the case because we can successfully breed for behavioral traits in animals. When wolves were tamed, for example, or when other animals were domesticated, early humans selected animals that were less fearful, less aggressive, more docile, more submissive — perhaps the ones that came nearest to the fire or that allowed humans to approach the closest without running away. If the reason that some were tamer was the genetic differences between them, and if those ones who hung around and tagged along with human groups then mated together, this would over time enrich for genetic variants predisposing to those traits. On the other hand, if the variation was not at least partly genetic in origin then breeding together tame individuals would not increase tameness in the next generation — the trait would not be passed on.

Well, we know how that turned out — with modern dogs that have a nature very distinct from their lupine ancestors. And that process has been played out over and over again in the creation of modern dog breeds (see figure 1.1). These breeds were selected in many cases for behavioral traits, according to the functions that humans wanted them to perform. Terriers, pointers, retrievers, herders, trackers, sled dogs, guard dogs, lapdogs — all show distinct profiles of traits like affection, vigilance, aggression, playfulness, activity, obedience, dominance, loyalty, and many others. All these traits are thus demonstrably subject to genetic variation. The details of how genetic differences influence them remain largely mysterious, but the fact that they do is incontrovertible.

And the same is true in humans, as we will see in subsequent chapters. The empirical evidence for this is every bit as strong as it is in dogs. Even just at a theoretical level, this is what we should expect, based on the geneticist's version of Murphy's Law: anything that can vary will. The fact that our nature as a species is encoded in the human genome has an inevitable consequence: the natures of individual humans will differ due to differences in that genetic program. It is not a question of whether or not it does — it must. There is simply no way for natural selection to prevent that from happening.


Just showing that a trait is genetic does not mean that there are genes "for that trait." Behavior arises from the function of the whole brain — with a few exceptions it is very far removed from the molecular functions of specific genes. In fact, many of the genetic variants that influence behavior do so very indirectly, through effects on how the brain develops.

This was dramatically highlighted by the results of a long-running experiment in Russia to tame foxes. Over 30 generations or more, scientists have been selecting foxes on one simple criterion — which ones allowed humans to get closest. The tamest foxes were allowed to breed together and the process repeated again in the next generation, and the next, and so on. The results have been truly remarkable — the foxes did indeed end up much more tame, but it is how that came about that is most interesting.

While they selected only for behavior, the foxes' appearance also changed in the process. They started to look more like dogs — with floppier ears and shorter snouts, for example — even the coat color changed. The morphological changes fit with the idea that what was really being selected for was retention of juvenile characteristics. Young foxes are tamer than older ones, so selecting for genetic differences that affected the extent of maturation could indirectly increase tameness, while simultaneously altering morphology to make them look more like pups.

This highlights a really important point. Just because you can select for a trait like tameness does not mean that the underlying genetic variation is affecting genes for tameness. The effect on tameness is both indirect and nonspecific, in that other traits were also affected. Though their identities are not yet known, the genes affected are presumably involved in development and maturation somehow.

The same kind of relationship holds in us. As we will see, the genetic variants that affect most psychological traits do so in indirect and nonspecific ways — we should not think of these as "genes for intelligence" or "genes for extraversion" or "genes for autism." It is mainly genetic variation affecting brain development that underlies innate differences in psychological traits. We are different from each other in large part because of the way our brains get wired before we are born.

But this is only half the story. Genetic variation is only one source of differences in how our brains get wired. The processes of development themselves introduce another crucial source of variation — one that is often overlooked. The genome does not encode a person. It encodes a program to make a human being. That potential can only be realized through the processes of development (see figure 1.2). Those processes of development are noisy, in engineering terms. They display significant levels of randomness, at a molecular level. This creates strong limits on how precisely the outcome can be controlled.

Thus, even if the genetic instructions are identical between two people, the outcome will still differ. Just as the faces of identical twins differ somewhat, so does the physical structure of their brains, especially at the cellular level. The progressive nature of development means that this inherent variability can have very substantial effects on the outcome, and, along with genetic differences, be a major contributor to differences in people's psychological makeup.

In sum, the way our individual brains get wired depends not just on our genetic makeup, but also on how the program of development happens to play out. This is a key point. It means that even if the variation in many of our traits is only partly genetic, this does not necessarily imply that the rest of the variation is environmental in origin or attributable to nurture — much of it may be developmental. Variation in our individual behavioral tendencies and capacities may thus be even more innate than genetic effects alone would suggest.


Excerpted from "Innate"
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Copyright © 2018 Princeton University Press.
Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Chapter 1 On Human Nature 1

Chapter 2 Variations On A Theme 12

Chapter 3 The Differences That Make A Difference 31

Chapter 4 You Can't Bake The Same Cake Twice 51

Chapter 5 The Nature Of Nurture 81

Chapter 6 I, Human 100

Chapter 7 Do You See What I See? 125

Chapter 8 The Clever Ape 155

Chapter 9 Ladies And Gentlemen, Boys And Girls 183

Chapter 10 The Exceptions 216

Chapter 11 Implications 248

Bibliography 271

Index 281

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"A powerful antidote to genetic determinism."—Barbara Kiser, Nature

"Innate is the best guide to the intersection of neuroscience, psychology, and genetics that I've found in recent years. . . . If there's any question you have about how our brains make us who we are, chances are you’ll find an enlightening answer in Innate."—Carl Zimmer, Publishers Weekly

"Engaging."—Anthony King, Irish Times

"A lucid, up-to-the-minute account of the human mind. . . . In considering the social, ethical, and philosophical implications of the accumulation of scientific discoveries, Mitchell changes the paradigm of what truly defines human nature."—Tiffany Jeung, Inverse

"Nature versus nurture is a centuries' old distinction, but neuroscience and genetics are taking us to a new level of sophistication in understanding it…. Mitchell's book is a new landmark in this debate, with clear and substantive explanations of the new light that biology is shedding on an old question."—Steven Pinker, author of The Blank Slate

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