Innate by Kevin Mitchell – Review

Kevin Mitchell (2018) “Innate
– How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are”

[This repeats and adds to relevant content from an earlier partial review.]

Several of the more important books I’ve read recently have felt mostly like syntheses and restatements of things I already felt I knew one way or another – Solms’ “Hidden Spring“, McGilchrist’s “Matter With Things” and Sigmund’s “Exact Thinking in Demented Times” (say) – and I’ve gone straight into gutting them for content to add to my own theses.

Reading “Innate” however I found several levels of details new to me.  Highly recommended therefore as an educational read – very matter-of-fact / common-sensical style, free of hyperbole, with its only agenda focussed on increasing understanding.

For example, on understanding that pre-wired traits are not hard-wired (the extent to which there’s plasticity) and that genes & DNA really do drive most of the (genetic) process of development of the human individual – traits, propensities, capabilities of brain and mind – without being reductively deterministic.

“Wiring” as the processes – not just the resultant paths– by which neurons and other structures seek and form connections at all stages in the process, that once in a unique development lifetime process of that individual.

From conception / fertilisation to our early 20’s, birth itself is just one point in the complex processes of development in a multi-layered landscape of time and place. So “innate” includes heritable genetic variation from parental DNA andde novo” mutations specific to the particular gametes, as well as the unique pre-birth experience of the individual. Why sexual reproduction and the enormous starting asymmetries (size, number and lifetimes) between the gametes (egg and sperm) and the sex-specific chromosomes (XX and XY) is so important to our success as “the clever ape”.

No shying away from the facts that as a species, we homo-sapiens are special in many important respects.

Mitchell is also very good on distinguishing between individuals and population distributions – and sub-set distributions – when it comes to human nature(s) and the value in understanding these without being in any way prescriptive or limiting of individuals. Makes it easy and natural to talk about differences – not least for example sex/gender differences (and even sexual preferences), free of “woke” political distraction. A whole chapter on many different sex differences, in both normal cases (eg things vs people) and in the prevalence of atypical conditions (eg autism, schizophrenia, bipolar). For sure there are strong environmental / cultural interactions with these, but great danger in denying and failing to understand the real differences. Difference – differences that make a difference – is a strong theme.

The complexity of the many feed-back and feed-forward loops in the nature of nurture – and the scale of the numbers involved – in neural and mental / behavioural development are endlessly fascinating and yet, as I say, presented in a very readable and digestible style.

The combination of functional and developmental flow descriptions and system / sub-system connectivity diagrams obviously appeals to my original cybernetics systems-thinking perspective. Mitchell’s book is an example of how powerful it is and why it is so important that such thinking is properly rehabilitated in a world of human affairs that rejects the mechanistic impression of our 20th C electro-mechanical computing machines. Original cybernetics was always about human governance, even the word “machine” in the Turing sense is a valuable abstraction before any physical embodiment.

The verb “shape” is so much more architectural than the over-simple determine when it comes to the rich complexity and multiplicity of human traits and capabilities arising from our genes. One feature of the systems-architectural view is that one can properly choose to ignore details which are not relevant to the behaviour of any given sub-system and yet assemble a functional view of the complex whole. Mitchell brings a very particular set of details applicable to the ideas of genetic and/or innate, pre-wired and/or more-or-less hard-wired or plastic when it comes to who we turn out to be.

Many highlights of interest to my own agenda:

An obvious one is that infamous Pinker “Blank Slate” finding, much quoted here since 2002 about the rough ratios of influence in personal traits development (nature vs nurture vs culture – Lewens) between:

    • genetics (~30-40%),
    • parenting & formal teaching (~10-20%) and
    • wider social, environmental & peer-group experience (~50-60%).

Mitchell shows that the “environmental” aspect is so misleading – actually very like the content<>context distinction in knowledge generally. (ie context is just more content, but often in meta-layers removed from the current content). At any point, our existing brain / mind IS the context for our ongoing content development. We are a large part of our own environment. That large mysterious part of our development is mostly indirectly – many layered loops of influence – driven by our own genes and other DNA including those we share with our parents and siblings.

Nurture and culture are natural processes too.

Another, without specific references, very reminiscent of both Solms and Pirsig in terms of “the subjective experience of the environment that matters” – “affective or emotional states that drive initial behavioural responses” – experience in terms of categorical good / bad qualities – “to learn from things … which we know only because they felt good or bad to us, because they were tagged with subjective, affective value.”

And, as with the ubiquitously contentious differences like sex and sexual preference mentioned above, differences like racial groups are also addressed. A passage on why, whilst such mental differences are real, these are “multiple traits affected by the genetic variants in hundreds and thousands of genes which often also affect other traits” – “this will tend to constrain the possibilities for change” and “directional selection (within the species) will fight a losing battle against mutation, which will instead constantly generate diversity within groups. There would need to be an extremely strong – [external, eugenic] – selection force to drive stable group differences”.

And so many more annotations for future reference, not to mention the various graphical summaries.

Kevin Mitchell’s Innate manages to be both broad in scope and detailed in example content, whilst remaining readable and informative. Even without the strong fit with my own cybernetic agenda as the initial reason to pick it up, it was a positively enjoyable read. Highly recommended.

[End]

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[Post notes:]

From Kevin Mitchell’s own tweeted summary later the same day:
(in a PSA context)

Genetics as a science is not about genes causing traits. It’s about how *variation* in genes causes *variation* in traits.

So, it’s necessarily reductive in its methodology. But that doesn’t mean geneticists think that specific genes produce specific bits of the organism or characters all by themselves

Making an organism requires the whole genome, in the context of a fertilised egg cell, in a permissive environment

But specific variations in DNA sequence can nevertheless cause specific phenotypic differences (all else being equal)

Note that that also does not imply a one-to-one mapping (in either direction) between specific DNA variants and specific traits – most such relationships are highly complex

Developmental biologists try to understand how the whole organism is put together, guided by the information in the genome.

That’s a necessarily holistic exercise, but it can be informed by results from reductive experiments (like knocking out one gene at a time and seeing what happens to development)

The tricky bit is integrating these two perspectives! (And remembering that using reductive methods does not commit us to reductive theories!)

That pesky term “causation” in the first tweet. And reminds me of Dan Dennett’s “greedy reductionism” warning. It’s OK to use reductive methods to understand the parts at any and all levels, but don’t forget to re-assemble the holistic whole – complex system of systems – before claiming causal explanations.

Consciousness and Free Energy

Just a post to capture a couple of unconnected links:

(1) Sue Blackmore and Deepak Chopra revisiting their decade old “Battle of the Worldviews” disagreement at Tucson 2022 “Science of Consciousness” conference.

Only managed to listen to half of it – not enough actual dialogue and Stuart Hameroff’s chairing doesn’t really help … but some interesting content where – as Sue points out – they have a large measure of agreement and shared experience. (Falters almost entirely on very basic language about what being real and/or illusory/imagined means … before anyone can talk about any explanatory processes, physical or otherwise. Ho hum.)

(2) A brand new paper with Karl Friston on the author list attempting to “introduce” Bayesian Mechanics / Free-Energy-Principle / Active-Inference / Markov-Blankets ….

(Hat tip to Kevin Mitchell for the sceptical link. In fact he has a thread on his reading it:

I consider that anthropic perspective very important … it’s not just a distraction. The subjective view is fundamental to Solms’ “Crossing the Rubicon”.)

Unus Mundus

Posting to capture this link to presentations from the 2022 “Tucson” science of consciousness conference – in particular this one on various “dual-aspect monisms” by Harald Atmanspacher.

I think what I’m proposing is similar to his psychophysically neutral monism involving a third neutral layer underlying both the mental and physical. He calls it Unus Mundus. Seems like Northrop’s “Undifferentiated Aesthetic Continuum” behind James and Pirsig?

(In mine it’s an informational filed of possibility / conceivability. I don’t need his quantum entanglement explanation – but note it’s only a metaphor to aid understanding – like so much quantum physics, there’s no real ontological commitment here, just explanatory aids.)

(Interesting, he mentions Metzinger too in the Q&A.)

The Exemplary Court Jester

Ricky Gervais can be a bit “Marmite” – love him or loathe him – but there can be no arguing with the fact he is one of our highest-level official court-jesters. Capturing this here for two maybe three reasons:

Firstly, the whole “TERF War” has been an exemplary / archetypal issue for my agenda in the madness of “binary” woke – “freedom fetish” – identity politics disfiguring all hope of civilised discourse and understanding on any number of complex topics facing our times.

Secondly, when it comes to constructive discourse, the roles of both respect and rhetorical humour are so misunderstood. We can’t all be comedians if we really respect the discourse – but we really do need our court-jesters out there too – to say what can’t be said in constructive discourse.

And finally Ricky himself. With someone so creative on so many topics and with the entertainment community divided on this, he could probably just as easily have written his latest material from the TRA perspective – but he has chosen to make them the butt of their own absurdities. Good call Ricky. I hope his peers are watching.

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[PS – Ricky getting lots of attention on Twitter for this. So far much applause from the LGB & Feminist voices – “namaste” all round – not much shit-hitting-the-fan getting through from the TRA side yet … here we go:


Thread … it’s not “Trans people” being humiliated, it’s the ludicrous misogynistic / anti-LGB / TRA / Stonewall / cis-trans / TWAW movement.]

[Post Note: And now a couple of days (and dozens of articles and zillions of social media posts) later the “debate” continues. I’m not going to provide a running commentary, unless David Baddiel pipes up. All the James Acaster / Nish Kumar takes are so … such naive and ill-informed intellectual dwarves. Ho hum. Full marks to @NaturalPhilosopher for trying to educate those philosophers who really should know better.]

Good and Bad but not Black and White

I have a long overdue (several years, half-drafted) piece called “Good Fences” that goes right back to basic “classification & identification, definition & description” of stuff we deal with in the real world: How we subdivide the world into different kinds of stuff and different things and give them various names. It occurs everywhere from the fundamental ontologies of existence to the woke machinations of identity politics – where anti-woke = the new woke, etc. From clarity and useful value to divisiveness and oppression of freedoms. (Still not that essay, but …)

Sam tweeted this today – it really is useful and necessary to be clear about putting things in good and bad pigeon-holes, even whilst rejecting absolute good and evil.

It struck me as worth recording, because also today there were two “day job” LinkedIn posts – one by Ben Taylor on fitting things into neat categories and another by ex-colleague Keith Williams on the new buzzword “Data Lakehouse”. The former emphasising the possibility of clarity without exclusivity – one point of the Good Fences meme. The latter a compromise – or rather useful integration – between the well defined (well structured, homogeneous) data “warehouse” databases and the more loosely defined collections of heterogeneous objects in data “lakes”. A passion of mine I’ve for many years called “just-in-time vs just-in-case” mark-up tagging – to combine views of well identified and versioned but loosely modelled resources with tighter fine-grained semantically defined resources. I tend to think in terms of the resource in human digestible “blob” form with a keeper or guardian-angel bracelet or lanyard with sufficient linkage to additional (and additive) semantic definition as fine-grained as needed – as and when necessary.

And, because my current read, Kevin Mitchell’s Innate is – like Solms’ Hidden Spring before it – using the same raw, categorical “affect” of good or bad compressed short-hand as the root of all conscious experience and hence all intellectual (scientific) conceptualisation and categorisation.

In fact the whole “systems thinking” / “active inference” approach encouraging seeing different strongly emergent levels / contexts for different levels of granularity and precision in the “definition” of subject-matter content.

(And “computation as compression” is as old as this blog.)

Jeez. Just write something!

Innate Progress

About half-way through Kevin Mitchell’s “Innate” as I type.

[Since superseded by a fuller review.]

Highly recommended as an educational read – very matter-of-fact / common-sensical style – on understanding that pre-wired traits are not hard-wired (plasticity) and that genes & DNA really do drive (most of) the whole (genetic) process of development of the human individual – traits, propensities, capabilities of brain and mind – without being reductively deterministic. From conception to our early 20’s, birth itself is just one point in the complex processes of development in a multi-layered landscape of time and location.

Very good on distinguishing between individuals and population distributions when it comes to human nature(s) and the value in understanding these without being in any way prescriptive or limiting of individuals. Makes it easy and natural to talk about differences – not least for example sex/gender differences and preferences, free of “woke” politics. In fact difference – differences that make a difference – is a strong theme.

The complexity of the many feed-back and feed-forward loops in the nature of nurture – and the scale of the numbers involved – in neural and mental / behavioural development are endlessly fascinating and yet, as I say, presented in a very readable and digestible style. Highly recommended.

I will further gut and unpick specific topics below that relate to my own writing agenda, but one to highlight first is that infamous Pinker “Blank Slate” finding, much quoted here since 2002 about the rough ratios of development “nature vs nurture” influence between genetics (~30-40%), parenting (~10-20%) and wider social environmental peer-group experience (~50-60%). Mitchell shows that the “environmental” aspect is so misleading – actually very like the content<>context distinction in knowledge generally. (ie Context is just more content, but often meta in layers removed from the current content). At any point, our existing brain / mind IS the context for our ongoing content development. We are a large part of our own environment. That large mysterious part of our development is mostly indirectly – many layered loops of influence – driven by our own genes and those we share with our parents and siblings. Nurture is natural too.

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Specifics:

 

Wendy Pirsig Interviewed on Quality

In connection with the publication of “On Quality”, the Spectator book club has Sam Leith interviewing Wendy Pirsig. (30 minute audio).

Actually quite fascinating since Leith actually appears to have prior understanding and research (and empathy) on the relevant topics. Great also to hear Wendy talking so enthusiastically with him about Bob and his work and their travels.

(Hat tip to David Matos and Artun Turan for spotting and sharing the link variously on social media.)

Innate by Kevin Mitchell

I’ve just taken possession of Kevin Mitchell’s (2018) “Innate – How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are”.

No idea why it’s taken me so long to acquire a copy, he’s been on my book list for some time and I’ve been following him for a few years on Twitter – he’s a gold-mine of sharing sources with images of brain architectures and processes and comments approvingly on McGilchrist and Solms and related references, though neither appear in his book so far as I can see. Just doing my usual first-impressions / skim before I start.

Guess it was the wiring diagrams aspect that prompted my actual purchase. I noted yesterday that meaningful graphical language was a a bottleneck for my own writing project. Mitchell’s book is indeed full of black and white line-diagram illustrations of his story, so far so good.

Lots to like in the chapter titles and sub-headings too:- differences that make a difference; you can’t bake the same cake twice; perception as active inference; ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls; exceptions, to name a few.

Usual suspects include Hofstadter (Strange Loop), Pinker (Blank Slate) and Sacks (Wife / Hat) in the end notes. (Acknowledgement to Adam Rutherford, will be interesting, been trouble in the past.)

Great to see “Active Inference” in there – very much part of my emergent architecture systems-thinking. Game on.

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