Innate by Kevin Mitchell: Implications on My Clone Army

Summarizing Kevin Mitchell's book, Innate, and applying what he teaches to questions about what my clone army would look like.


I’ve alluded a couple of times to my semi-obsession with how my life might be different in parallel universes. But maybe a more realistic way to explore this would be to clone myself hundreds of times.

  • How would this brigade of clone Chrises turn out?
  • How different would they be from me and each other? Why?
  • Would Kim eventually leave me for a better version of me?

These are all questions Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are by neurogeneticist Kevin Mitchell helped me understand.

My biggest takeaway:

We are prewired more than hardwired.

Developmental Plinko

If we started again and let the embryo that gave rise to you develop again, “you” would not be the result (not even “baby you” would be the result). Your clone would be the result, but he or she would be different from you in many ways.

Our development is like a mega, multi-billion-ball-ed Plinko game.

We start with our unique set of genetically-programmed “balls.” All my clones would begin the same way. Then their balls would start bouncing. The smallest deviations would cause some to go in different directions. They’d even bounce off of each other, further mixing things up. For some clones, balls may get stuck or go horribly awry. For others, the balls would bounce in just the right combination for my clone to hit the genetic lottery.

Mitchell points out that we have two Plinko games going on inside of us: the right and left sides of our bodies. That’s why my right foot is half a size larger than my left.

Because of this stochastic development, if I made my clone army large enough there would be gay clone Chrises and left-handed clone Chrises. They would all differ slightly in appearance and their personalities would vary widely.

One thing’s for sure: None would have my bent-beaked face. If any of my clones were to break his nose, I’d make sure to get that straightened out immediately so they avoid the twenty-year mouth breathing habit that made me long-faced, bent-nosed, and weak-jawed.

Experience Accentuates Biological Differences

It is not just the absolute levels of a trait that matter (high or low); it is sometimes the relative levels across interacting individuals (higher or lower) that influence outcomes.

[T]he effects of experience therefore typically act to amplify rather than counteract innate differences.

If I raised my clones together in some compound and apart from the rest of the world, like the boy in the book/movie Room, their developmental differences would accentuate.

For instance, my clones whose Plinko produced less-introverted personalities would probably hang out together, apart from the others. That experience would make them extra extraverted.

What different people find salient differs from the outset…Because the weight of these signals is the thing that gates learning, initial differences will tend to get reinforced and exaggerated through these processes

Similarly, risk-averse clones may try to escape my compound once and get punished by me. This lesson would reinforce their brain’s wiring to want to minimize risk. But my more risk-seeking clones’ brains wouldn’t be so sensitive to the lesson, so they’d retain their tendency to defy me.

Biology’s Beyond Nuture

[T]he 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.

Presuming I don’t stunt my clone army’s development with malnutrition, my role as Supreme Original Chris Commander will have little impact on their biological development.

My minions could train their brains to make gains in their intelligence:

[P]eople do indeed differ in intellectual potential, but absolute levels of intelligence in individuals are by no means fixed.

But their predispositions to act in certain ways are almost as stubborn to change as the size of my feet:

[T]here is little evidence to support the idea that we can really change our personality traits, that we could, for example, learn to be biologically less neurotic or more conscientious. You may be able to learn behavioral strategies that allow you to adapt better to the demands of your life, but these are unlikely to change the predispositions themselves.

As I was surprised in my deep dive on personality from a couple years back, Mitchell reminded me that anything I do to nurture my clones will have little effect on their behavioral predispositions. The personalities of identical twins raised apart are just as similar, on average, as those raised in the same family. And adopted siblings from different biological parents have zero correlation in personality traits.

Accepting Innateness Is Powerful

By understanding and leveraging the innate diversity among my Chris clones, I could make my army more powerful than a homogeneous one.

So can we all:

There is a power in accepting people the way they are—our friends, partners, workmates, children, siblings, and especially ourselves. People really are born different from each other and those differences persist. We’re shy, smart, wild, kind, anxious, impulsive, hardworking, absent-minded, quick-tempered. We literally see the world differently, think differently, and feel things differently. 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.

More Fun Facts I Learned From Innate

Higher gender equality leads to higher average differences between genders.

It is the most developed nations, with the highest levels of gender equality in social and legal terms, that consistently show the greatest degree of difference in personality traits between men and women.

If dopamine is the “molecule of more,” serotonin is the “molecule of mellow.”

  • It’s your inner disciplinarian, and we all have different baseline levels of it.

In general, low levels of serotonin signaling—both in humans and in animals—are associated with greater impulsivity and increased volatility in behavior, often manifested as hostility and aggression. Serotonin has long been thought to convey signals about punishment and to be involved in negative reinforcement learning. It acts, broadly speaking, in opponency to dopamine, which signals better-than-expected outcomes, or rewards.

Activating the serotonin neurons promotes waiting, while inactivating them leads to an increase in premature, impulsive responses. The same pathways also allow animals to unlearn things, in particular to inhibit previously learned responses that are no longer adaptive under current conditions and to drive plasticity to reconfigure the weights assigned to these actions. It is thus a key component of cognitive flexibility—it both suppresses impulsive actions that may be suboptimal or incur negative consequences and prevents animals from persevering in actions that used to pay off but no longer do.

An intelligent brain is a more efficient brain.

One fairly consistent finding is that during tasks that are reasonably difficult, higher intelligence correlates with lower levels of brain activation of various cortical areas. That may sound a bit surprising, but the interpretation is that the brains of more intelligent people have to work less hard to accomplish the same task.

Men have bigger brains. Women use theirs better.

Despite the difference in brain size between the sexes, with male brains being on average 10% larger than female brains, there is no difference in average IQ scores between the sexes. This is a bit surprising, because there is a correlation between brain size and IQ generally, of about 0.40 (which holds within each sex).

Some people can see music or taste food in colors. It’s called Synesthesia.

Pharrell Williams has said of his synesthesia that “It’s the only way that I can identify what something sounds like. I know when something is in key because it either matches the same color or it doesn’t. Or it feels different and it doesn’t feel right.” Other musicians whose work has been influenced by their synesthesia include Duke Ellington, Kanye West, Tori Amos, Billy Joel, and many others.

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đź‘‹ I'm Chris. Everything you read on is my fault. This site is like a gym for your comfort zone, full of challenges to make your status quo sexier. Join my 'Consider This' newsletter for a fun new challenge every 10 days. Try it!

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