Review, Top Stories

Every Schoolchild Should Read This Book

A review of Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are by Kevin J. Mitchell. Princeton University Press (October 16, 2018) 304 pages.

Kevin Mitchell’s Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are is a book for high school students. And I mean that as a compliment. Profound misunderstandings about the genetic nature of human beings lie at the heart of the social justice movement, as well as some education reforms, attitudes toward mental disorders, aspects of the self-help industry, and social policies including but not limited to immigration, welfare, racism, and sex/gender issues. What a person understands or misunderstands about genetics is a foundation for evaluating new ideas encountered in college, forming political opinions, dealing with difficult co-workers, tackling issues of parenthood and family, and generally living day-to-day life.

If read early enough, Innate might provide some inoculation against bad or naïve information about human nature and the indisputable role played by genes. That is why it belongs on high school reading lists, not just in science classes. Think general liberal education.

Kevin Mitchell is a neurogeneticist who has a knack for explaining things like a good science writer. His book does not break much new ground, but it explains what we know at this time about genetics and human differences with a clarity that presumes no technical background or previous study of genetics. It is a good read for anyone at any age interested in how we get to be who we are, or more accurately why we are different from everyone else. That is, this book is all about human variation. According to Mitchell, the key to individual differences is a combination of a unique genetic recipe for a soup of proteins specified in our DNA (the “innate” of the book’s title) and how that recipe comes to fruition during brain development when the recipe is subject to unique random errors with cascading effects from protein formation to neural circuits.

The role of these random errors of development is typically viewed in heritability estimates as the effects of the “non-shared” environment, but this assumes all environmental effects are extrinsic to the person. Mitchell’s point is an important one—variation in the development of the brain is actually more intrinsic and should be included as part of nature rather than nurture.

As a consequence of the confluence of DNA and brain development, genes alone are only a probabilistic basis for inheriting proclivities that may or may not come into being. As he notes, 100 genetically identical clones will not result in 100 identical individuals, and that’s without bringing in environmental differences. This was unforgettably dramatized in The Boys from Brazil (Levin, 1976) (or watch the riveting movie version; spoiler alert: there are Nazis). Mitchell’s bottom line: DNA shapes but does not determine who we become.

This reasonable, almost mundane conclusion is widely shared by most researchers in the field. More than some other authors/researchers, however, Mitchell de-emphasizes or explains away controversies like how we define sex, group differences in average intelligence test scores, whether we have free will, and some other perceived consequences of genetic influence. In my view, many of these issues and controversies are deeper and more complex than he allows. Nonetheless, Innate is a simple introduction to the complexities of what genetic data mean and what they do not mean. The first section deals with human nature, basic strategies for genetic research, basic neuroscience about brain structure and function and development, environment/experience, and brain plasticity. The second deals specifically with personality traits, individual differences in perception, intelligence, sex differences, and brain disorders. The final chapter discusses the implications of knowing how genes influence brain development and the aforementioned characteristics.

Here are four quotes to illustrate the clarity with which major points are made:

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 (7).

Answering the question of how genetic variation leads to differences in traits is ultimately what the modern science of genetics is all about (48).

Many studies have looked for systematic associations between specific environmental factors or experiences that differ between siblings and specific behavioral outcomes… The results from these studies are very clear. They have failed to identify any robust, consistent, or substantial effects on any of a variety of outcomes including adjustment, personality measures, or cognitive ability (53).

All of the processes of neural development… —patterning, proliferation, differentiation, cell migration, axon guidance, synapse formation—rely on differential gene expression and on interactions between proteins (signals and their receptors, to begin with, as well as all the internal pathways of proteins that mediate the reactions to such signals). This means that each of these processes is subject to noise at multiple levels. As a result, none of these processes in the developing embryo is deterministic (69).

In the final chapter, Mitchell presents the main ethical concerns about using genetic knowledge for predicting or changing complex traits. Overall, he warns about potential misuses and he is careful to be neutral on specific questions. Who, for example, disagrees with the concluding summary:

Some of us make our way through the world with ease, and some of us struggle to fit in or get along or keep it together. Denying those differences or constantly telling people they should change is not helpful to anyone. We should recognize the diversity of our human natures, accept it, embrace it, even celebrate it (269).

Although we follow each other on Twitter, I would like to see more details in his book about what Mitchell thinks about difficult issues. Perhaps just explaining why we know what is innate and how we know it is enough to invite productive discussions.

I have some minor issues with citations and with explanations of some brain imaging data (my specialty), but on the whole I don’t disagree with much that Mitchell has written. One general perspective where I do differ is with his view that the genetics of brain development are so intricate, it is unlikely we will ever find a way to manipulate genes to enhance mental abilities like intelligence or correct complex mental disorders like schizophrenia.

I am more optimistic, but mostly because I take a decades-long view and have faith in advanced technologies not yet imagined that surely will evolve from genomic information methods, CRISPR and other gene editing technologies, as well as future insights from neuroscience. 

Will this book change any minds already steeped in blank slate assumptions or consumed by social construction theories of all things human? Probably not. But early prevention based on data is an effective strategy. Let us get books like Innate into the hands and minds of students as early as possible so that informed public discussion of ethical, social, and political issues surrounding genetic knowledge keeps pace with the inexorable growth of that knowledge.

*  *  *

Author note: Just as I was finishing this review, I learned about the mob shaming of a young social scientist who has written about intelligence, group differences, politics, and why discussing data from controversial areas of research is important for dispelling myths. Hundreds of academics signed a letter demanding he be fired from his university fellowship. The letter relied mostly on ad hominin attacks and slogans like “genetic intelligence” rather than specific refutations of empirical studies. Most of the hundreds of academic signers were in fields far outside the peer-reviewed publications at issue. They apparently had no knowledge about the modern status of either intelligence or genetic research findings or what they mean and do not mean. Clearly, high school inoculation with scientific data is too late for them. There are a number of recent books written by scientists that might influence their thinking if they cared enough to read them with an open mind. I hope the university decision-makers that are considering the letter’s demand for firing and its impact on academic freedom will support continuing the fellowship.

Richard J. Haier is Professor Emeritus in the Pediatric Neurology Division at the University of California, Irvine. He is the editor-in-chief of Intelligence. Follow him on Twitter @rjhaier.

Filed under: Review, Top Stories


Richard Haier is Professor Emeritus, University of California, Irvine, editor-in-chief of Intelligence, a scientific journal, and author of The Neuroscience of Intelligence (Cambridge University Press, 2017) that includes hundreds of recent scientific references to support the arguments made here.


  1. DuppyConqueror says

    This is the right approach, trying to provide the intellectual tools to people to figure things out for themselves before they get “lost in the jungle” as Chip Morningstar put it:

    “The Pseudo Politically Correct term that I would use to describe the mind set of postmodernism is “epistemologically challenged”: a constitutional inability to adopt a reasonable way to tell the good stuff from the bad stuff. The language and idea space of the field have become so convoluted that they have confused even themselves. But the tangle offers a safe refuge for the academics. It erects a wall between them and the rest of the world. It immunizes them against having to confront their own failings, since any genuine criticism can simply be absorbed into the morass and made indistinguishable from all the other verbiage. Intellectual tools that might help prune the thicket are systematically ignored or discredited. This is why, for example, science, psychology and economics are represented in the literary world by theories that were abandoned by practicing scientists, psychologists and economists fifty or a hundred years ago… in academia the pressures for isolation are enormous. It is clear to me that the humanities are not going to emerge from the jungle on their own.”

    • davgar says

      This is why, for example, science, psychology and economics are represented in the literary world by theories that were abandoned by practicing scientists, psychologists and economists fifty or a hundred years ago…
      This exactly correct and needs to be rectified. It is essentially the reason I have stopped reading novels, and much poetry. They are peddling, and restricted by, these out of date views, it is a shame.

    • A. D. White says

      By very successfully questioning the foundations of humanistic knowledge post-modernists have established themselves as the new mandarins in the universities. The question remains why this was possible in the humanities (and the softer social sciences) but much less so in the natural sciences. Is the difference due to the existence of objective laboratory verification in the latter fields devised to examine new ideas/concepts in minute detail prior to acceptance?

  2. I think this maps on nicely with Gabor Mate’s view of the development of the brain and personality.

  3. Chris says

    “Profound misunderstandings about the genetic nature of human beings lie at the heart of the social justice movement…” In what way exactly? I’ve never heard genetics mentioned in any academic discussions concerning social justice, whether it be critiques on John Rawls ‘Theory of Justice’ or any other… What are you defining as ‘social justice’ exactly? From what you say above, the complexity and unpredictible nature of the process genetic traits manifesting themselves actually gives more weight to Rawls ‘Veil of Ignorance’ and ‘Justice through fairness’ paradigms. Or is there another meaning of ‘social justice’ that I am not aware of?

    • ga gamba says

      I’ve never heard genetics mentioned in any academic discussions concerning social justice,

      Take care with your admissions. Your reader may take it a challenge.

      Because this site goes haywire when I include three or more URLs, and I don’t feel like replacing the . with (dot) in the URLs for your benefit to include more, you can do the google search. Be assured, there’s plenty of discussion about genetics and social justice amongst academics. Unless you’re using some other meaning of ‘academic discussion’ that I am not aware of.

    • Vincent says

      I was about to quote that same line. From the review, I don’t see how this book addresses such issues. It actually sounds like a nuanced and interesting read, but the Quillette spin that brackets the review seems unnecessary.

      I’m one that frequently rails against the oversimplification of the role of genes in complex neurological processes—a view that appears to be Quillette orthodoxy—but this book doesn’t sound like it argues in favor of this idea. I think the common misperception, as demonstrated in this article, is that if one is suspicious of things like evolutionary psychology then one is automatically in favor of tabula rasa or social constructivism.

      This is just not true. I view social constructivism as the opposite extreme as evolutionary psychology, fraught with similar problems. In both cases, the nuances and complexities of human genetics and neurology are overlooked in favor or reductive explanations. I look forward to reading this book as it sounds like a more nuanced look at these issues.

      • Paulo says

        Nuances lead to difficulties in ‘the falsifying project’ of Popper (in a manner of speaking), because it easily leads to ad hoc explanations. So many scientists try to keep it simple to avoid the unfalsifying attacks.

    • ccscientist says

      Social justice depends on a blank slate view of human nature, that the only reason for different outcomes between people is power, culture, and patriarchy. That men and women differ in interests (for good evolutionary reasons) and abilities is simply denied. Thus we get pressure to hire 5 ft tall women as fire fighters who cannot carry someone from a burning building. People die from such policies, but fortunately few women want to become firefighters. James Damore was fired from Google for merely suggesting that maybe women are not as interested in coding (he didn’t even say they are less able, even though that is true too at the highest levels).

      • >Social justice depends on a blank slate view of human nature, that the only reason for different outcomes between people is power, culture, and patriarchy

        No it doesn’t? It depeneds on a view that signficant portion of different outcomes between people is power, culture and patriachy.

    • Stoic Realist says


      I have to admit that my own opinion on Rawls has soured over the years. Both his ‘Veil of Ignorance’ and ‘Justice through Fairness’ paradigms work chiefly as thought experiments. The former disregards both man’s rationality (it has long been said that ‘one life for hundreds’ is a rationalist transaction), tendency towards gambling (the innate tendency of many people to be convinced that a particular bad thing won’t happen to them), and trade offs of circumstance (would you trade a life of comfortable serfdom in a modern economy for a life of individual freedom in the bronze age). The latter, especially in its ‘Difference Principle’, tends to disregard basic tenants from economics and human psychology (the idea of wealth ‘diffusing up’ treads close socialist economics which in the real world have worked badly).

      That aside given how many screes from the social justice crowd insist on the blank slate, push the idea that almost all human differences are a ‘social construction’, ruthlessly attack anyone who tries to use scientific evidence (science is patriarchal and white supremacist according to at least some of them) to counter them on these or any other front, and even argue for keeping people ignorant if the facts might give someone ‘bad ideas’ I think he’s safe to say they have ‘profound misunderstandings’ and that much of the science in question poses problems for those movements. Their own actions seem to support that assertion.

  4. @Vincent-
    “Nuance” is what is most frequently missing, because what is also clear from a review of human history, is that there is a persistent and relentless search for some reductive explanation of the human person.

    Whether through religion, astrology, phrenology, palmistry or whatever, there seems always to be some deep hunger to find a simple way to construct a “naturally occurring” categorization, and aristocracy of worth among humans.

    While scientists themselves are usually cautious, laypeople tend to seize upon tidbits of fact to eagerly advance their preferred mythology.

    • James Lee says


      “…there is a persistent and relentless search for some reductive explanation of the human person.”

      Good point.

      Does this apply to SJ orthodoxy which explains all human disparities through the monocular lens of “oppression”?

    • @Chip

      Since science which examines differences among groups of humans is likely to be distorted or used to justify maleficence by laypeople despite the intentions of scientists, is it justifiable to limit or prohibit scientific inquiry into such domains? If human history reveals a tendency (need?) to understand the distinctions between us and a tendency/need for hierarchy, is it reasonable to suppose or hope that these characteristics are extricable and/or mutable?

      • ccscientist says

        SM: ” is it justifiable to limit or prohibit scientific inquiry into such domains?” The problem of course is that a whole suite of scientific topics have come under fire, not just sociology. Animal behavior and evolutionary biology studies way back in the 1970s (see attacks on EO Wilson for his book Sociobiology) were viewed as not allowable, and yet animal behavior cannot be understood without these studies. Medical differences between men and women or between races have turned out to be crucial but were suppressed for years. For example, women differ in heart attack symptoms and in response to meds. Blacks differ from whites in the frequency of certain illnesses (depression, heart disease, stroke, glaucoma). Jews have very specific genetic diseases. All of this requires that races be identified and studied.

        • JG Alegria says

          @ccscientist – Gone are the days where “not seeing” races was a sign of acceptance. It’s now a sign of assimilation mentality, bigotry and ignorance of racism and oppression. So studying the differences between races shouldn’t be a problem in today’s “identity” obsessed political climate where everyone wants to wear a label describing their oppressed group or category like a badge of honour. Australian Aboriginal people promote ideas they are a separate race. Of course the SJ movement is full of contradictions and while it promotes a belief in inherent race and innate gender (eg transgender who believe their innate gender is different to their biological body), and the heritable culpability of “whiteness” (ie being born white is enough to make you an oppressor regardless of your social status, education level etc.), it also battles against socially constructed oppression and stereotypes. While Blacks want to identify as “black” and some argue about their exact racial identity and extraction, they also argue their struggle is entirely caused by systemic racism in society (not by anything biological or cultural in their own people). Transgender want biological evidence that they are ‘born that way’ – meaning born in the wrong body so they can get laws changed to make it easier to change their identity based simply on how they feel / how they identify; Gays want biological evidence they are different/ were born that way in order to gain increased acceptance in society and changes to laws. So while some groups may welcome a scientific explanation in the DNA, others seek to refute scientific evidence eg: that men and women choose careers based on biological preference as much, or more than, societal expectations.

  5. ccscientist says

    For higher level readers than high school, I highly recommend “The Blank Slate” by Steven Pinker.

    One of the ways in which knowing about such things is helpful is in finding ways to overcome our limitations. For example, I cannot make myself stop being absent-minded, so instead I have developed a habit of carrying note-cards about to-do, things to buy, people to call, etc. If one is easily distracted, arranging work to avoid distractions (turn off phone and email for hour long periods for example) is more helpful than telling yourself to “not be distracted” which is impossible. If your spouse is messy but otherwise you love them and you are neat, it is perhaps better to play to your own strength and pick up after them rather than fighting about it constantly (ie, leaving things around does not necessarily mean they don’t respect you, and may be impervious to nagging).

    If you are realistic about your IQ or musical ability, you can avoid problems like going to a college above your ability or pursuing a music career that will never pan out.

    • X. Citoyen says

      Should Richard Feynman, William Shockley, and the other low-IQ scientists who’ve made major contributions to science been more realistic?

      • What in the hell are you talking about? Richard Feynman and “low-IQ” shouldn’t be in the same sentence. The man was one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. You should read the biographical work about him from James Gleick. It’s titled “Genius.” You know, for his low IQ.

      • Greg Yalkorb says

        Steve Hsu on this topic, from Psychology Today:

        3. Is it true Feynman’s IQ score was only 125?

        Feynman was universally regarded as one of the fastest thinking and most creative theorists in his generation. Yet it has been reported-including by Feynman himself-that he only obtained a score of 125 on a school IQ test. I suspect that this test emphasized verbal, as opposed to mathematical, ability. Feynman received the highest score in the country by a large margin on the notoriously difficult Putnam mathematics competition exam, although he joined the MIT team on short notice and did not prepare for the test. He also reportedly had the highest scores on record on the math/physics graduate admission exams at Princeton. It seems quite possible to me that Feynman’s cognitive abilities might have been a bit lopsided-his vocabulary and verbal ability were well above average, but perhaps not as great as his mathematical abilities. I recall looking at excerpts from a notebook Feynman kept while an undergraduate. While the notes covered very advanced topics for an undergraduate-including general relativity and the Dirac equation-it also contained a number of misspellings and grammatical errors. I doubt Feynman cared very much about such things.

        • 125 isn’t genius level, but still two and half deviations above average. I agree that it undoubtedly tested across a variety of mental aspects including vocabulary that had nothing to do with mathematics and physics. He was much like a number of guys I know that had perfect 800 SAT math scores but 650 or less on the verbal SAT. Might be interesting for SAT people to analyze scores for imbalance in either direction.

  6. Peter from Oz says

    Recently I read that a person who studies the “knowledge” to become a London taxi driver will enlarge his or her hypothalamus in the process.this would seem to be an argument that environment can have an effect on the brain. Of course it does raise the question as to whether those who become cab drivers in London a genetically predisposed to wanting to enlarge their hypothalamuses

    • X. Citoyen says

      Funny you should mention this, Richard Dawkins just published The Selfish Hypothalamus: Why Some People Become Cabbies.

    • Z from OZ says

      It is the “hippocampus”, not the “hypothalamus”. Hippocampus is involved in spatial memory, amoung many other things. London taxi drivers who need to use their spatial memory quite actively did show an increased volume of the hippocampus, first shown in 1997. As the authors say in the paper mentioned by Peter from Oz “We conclude that specific, enduring, structural brain changes in adult humans can be induced by biologically relevant behaviors engaging higher cognitive functions such as spatial memory, with significance for the “nature versus nurture” debate.” Curr Biol. 2011 Dec 20;21(24):2109-14.

    • Paulo says

      Of course people never talk about the people who studied to became taxi drivers but didn’t make it, in some of them probably because of their hypothalamus. Many people assume, apparently, all hypothalamus are the same.

      • Paulo says

        I mean hippocampus… (it’s always good to read the comments 😉 )

      • JG Alegria says

        @Paulo it’s from use that this change occurs ie. people don’t study to become taxi drivers – there is no qualification required – thus the appeal for immigrants with foreign qualifications that are not recognised in their new country. It’s a great way to earn money while you get your qualification in your chosen field recognised.

  7. X. Citoyen says

    I’d prefer to see Shakespeare and Euclid back in the hands of students. Isn’t that the real problem, after all? Balancing blank slateism with a synopsis of the latest genetic research is to put a band aid on a sucking chest wound.

    • “I’d prefer to see Shakespeare and Euclid back in the hands of students.”

      Too bad all the smart teachers appear to have died off.

  8. Let’s hear it for the genes! To me one of the most clear-sighted commentators on several issues of concern to Quillette readers is The Outsider, an American who has for many years been a Buddhist monk in Burma, and who about 18 months ago shifted his blog focus from Buddhism to broader issues of current concern. I think that many will find his latest blog pertinent:

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