Colin McGinn. Inborn Knowledge: The Mystery Within. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015. 9780262029391. 152 pages. $32U.S. Hardcover.
Colin McGinn’s book Inborn Knowledge offers a succinct and easy-to-read introduction to what evolutionary psychologists have known for quite some time: innate concepts are inherited over generations and knowledge is not re-learned anew with each individual. I would not, however, classify McGinn’s book as science, much less as evolutionary or cognitive science. He writes as a philosopher for philosophers, and that’s where the great value of his book lies. Philosophers who might resist evolutionary approaches to the human mind will find comfort in McGinn’s lucid and organized style, discovering that, contrary to what preconceived notions they might have, biological evolution does not equate to determinism nor does it eliminate free will and individuality. To a large extent, McGinn sets out in this very short work to delineate how the brain can help to explain the mind.
The key question concerns the provenance of ideas. From early on, McGinn makes clear that his argument will demonstrate how we are born with ideas, a nativist approach, and that we do not simply acquire ideas from objects, an empiricist approach. I suppose it’s worth noting that an evolutionist might quibble with parts of McGinn’s title, once his claim is staked. It might not be wholly fair or accurate to say that we are born with knowledge per se, and certainly from a biological perspective any innate capacities for applying concepts from within the mind to the outside word is not really a mystery. While McGinn knows his subject, from both the philosophical and evolutionary sides, I notice that his bibliography is very light, leans more to philosophy, and includes Jerry Fodor and Noam Chomsky, not known as mighty defenders of evolutionary approaches where continuities are shared among human beings, great apes, and other primates. But based on my reading of McGinn’s book, he has absorbed and is able to transmit much scientific thinking not necessarily represented in his bibliography.
Nativists, or those who see ideas as internal, include Plato, Descartes, and Leibniz. There is an innate, inner nature. Empiricists, or those who see ideas as external, include Aristotle, Aquinas, and especially, Locke. The mind is, according to Locke’s famous dictum, a tabula rasa or blank slate onto which sensations from objects inscribe ideas. Not surprisingly, McGinn spends much time discussing Locke, from beginning to end, who insists that all of our knowledge is founded in experience, in our observation of items external to us. For Locke, the source of ideas comes from things, from the objects themselves that create subjective impressions.
McGinn makes a further subtle distinction between internal and external empiricism. For the internal empiricist, ideas do not depend so much on external causes but more on our subjective impressions. McGinn says that Hume might fit into this category. For the external empiricist, however, ideas indeed stem direct from physical things. For Locke, external objects generate impressions and ideas on the mind. Therefore everything ideational and all qualities come down to physical objects. Our interaction with things is what creates our impressions and ideas. A Cartesian nativist would say ideas are innate – put there by God. Others might say that ideas derive externally not from objects but from what others tell us.
There could be combinations of impression/idea-nativism and idea/impression-empiricism, raising questions about whether innate ideas are (or not) from external impressions. Locke is a proponent of both ideas and impressions as rooted in objects. Hume sees impressions as originating from within the mind. If impressions are internal, and if ideas come from impressions, then ideas too are internal, notes McGinn. Empiricists would say, however, that simple and not complex ideas come from the senses. All of this reminds me of how Emerson says nature is to soul as seal is to print. But while Emerson is transcendental, Locke is mechanistic. For Locke, there is no mystery in how ideas are formed. For the nativist, senses help evoke what is innate; sense does not simply manufacture ideas.
McGinn offers easy examples to follow, but he spends much time on color, a secondary quality, and the view is a bit anthropocentric. A chimpanzee does not know the difference between what we call yellow and black, only that ripe fruit looks a certain way. We don’t need any linguistic labels to know that a color is different from one we’ve seen before. Understanding is inborn. As the philosopher Schopenhauer says, perception is the product of understanding, not sensation. The primate brain knows to avoid putrid looking food resources. McGinn also talks about where geometric ideas come from and whether one can have the idea of a triangle by seeing only a straight line. An empiricist says no but a nativist says yes. I might add that we consider how Homo habilis created stone tools. A simple idea can become more complex in mind without external stimuli, since the mind is a maker. Just as there is a straight edge, if one can mentally see a straight edge in a round stone, the mind has created the tool before it is physically manufactured.
And of course Australopithecines prior to Homo may have made tools, so the idea was floating around literally and physically. As only a philosopher can do, McGinn has a long riff about a brain in a vat and what it’s capable of or not. But brains did not evolve to be in vats but in bodies in the world. Of course McGinn knows this; his argument is against ideas stemming only empirically, for he says that a brain in a vat can be stimulated to have impressions and to generate ideas. Not until page twenty does McGinn use the word gene, as a source of ideas, and he does not utter the word evolution or refer to Darwin until pages thirty six and thirty eight.
I can understand what McGinn says about a purely mental life of ideas as not necessarily deriving from the physicality of things, but we evolved to live in and interact with a world of objects, other persons, and events. Many of our ideas are about things; most of our ideas are about people. McGinn appears to denigrate ideas coming via social empiricism, but we evolved to be in large groups. We imitate and learn from others as an adaptive shortcut. If we tried to have all ideas about everything on our own we’d not survive. But McGinn seems to focus his anti-empiricist criticism on linguistic learning. Yet in our evolved past, seen too in other species, there is no need for grammatical language to interact, perceive, and have ideas. See, for example, early work done by Wolfgang Köhler and Robert Yerkes who conducted experiments with great apes. He says, for instance, “Concepts are detachable from...extraneous conditions” (21). Okay, maybe so, but that might be abstracting a bit too much from our evolved capacities and abilities. While we can be philosophical, we did not evolve to be philosophers. We use ideas to explain things. Using ideas to explain other ideas is a much more recent development, no doubt.
McGinn finds a contradiction in Locke. Ideas come from objects themselves but yet secondary qualities like color are projected onto an object from within the subjective storehouse of the mind. So how, according to Locke could the mind be a blank slate if it has the inborn ability to color the world? McGinn says impressions of primary and secondary qualities cannot be separated, though Locke does so.
McGinn supports Chomsky and how the mind already has the elements to enable language, but we know Chomsky presents a human uniqueness angle. McGinn’s point is how stimuli are not potent enough in themselves, in spite of what empiricists say, to generate ideas. Descartes, he notes, was at least correct to say how the world is made of scattered bits of information that our mind assembles. In other words, Locke is wrong to say ideas move wholesale from objects to minds. McGinn does acknowledge that each species processes the world differently according to its biological requirements, but no species copies the external world as idea into the brain.
Concerning the empiricist position, McGinn rightly asks how we move from the particular to the universal. How does the empiricist account for abstract ideas? How do we generate large, general ideas from small and particular things? Empiricists cannot account for such general ideas, only particular. The empiricist claims that the mind has an ability to abstract, but that would be innate. McGinn tells us how Locke did not believe animals capable of mentally abstracting, but that leaves open the problem of why infants do in fact have ideas, to say nothing of the continuity between us and apes. One cannot say that particulars give rise to impressions and that the mind later abstracts because of the particular. The mind can abstract, innately, on its own.
Empiricists seem to say that the furnishings of consciousness, not the actual mind itself, come from perceptible particulars in the world. Consider how from birth all species have intent and agency. Todd Feinberg and Jon Mallat, in The Ancient Origins of Consciousness (MIT 2016), have recently demonstrated that sensory consciousness is widespread across species and evolutionarily very old. Species evolve to fit into a niche and so have different ways of perceiving the world. A fish on the bottom of the ocean need not see and so is blind. A bat that swoops in darkness needs echolocation in spite of blindness. Species evolve behaviors linked to a consciousness of the environment. McGinn’s point, no secret to biologists, is that different species’ responses prove their minds are not blank at birth. But instead of adaptation he uses the odd expression original endowment. The mind is conscious from birth, and so blank-mind empiricists cannot account for instincts and drives. In many ways, also not necessarily a new thought, consciousness across species is cognitive and the mind is inherently working towards physical and social survival, not on instincts alone. McGinn wonders why species do not inter-mate (36). That is the subject of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. But McGinn understands that there are species specific and cross species cognitive ideas about actions built into animal minds.
Darwin comes into McGinn’s picture in terms of inheritance, and there is quite a nice précis, including some comments about the adapted mind, beginning on page thirty eight. I do believe, though, that McGinn should have cued his readers much sooner, perhaps in his Preface, to his evolutionary leanings. Simply by using, in a philosophical way, the word nativist in the first thirty five pages is misleading. McGinn’s affirmation of biology could have been better foreshadowed. That the book makes an essentially scientific claim means some of its grounding ideas could have been cataloged sooner. Nods to Descartes and others might confuse readers into thinking there is, in fact, creative evolution.
The pillars of Darwin’s natural selection are variation, competition, and inheritance. There is no spiritus mundi, no élan vital, and nothing mysterious. McGinn spends a little time on variation when he talks about individuality, ignores competition, but does cover inheritance. Locke and Hume think consciousness but not its content is innate; contents are acquired and accumulate. Knowledge can vary across cultures over time but there is an innate mental structure for cultural knowledge. Some knowledge is acquired and becomes a memory. There is other knowledge we are born with, such as the concepts of addition and subtraction. The nature of mind is that it is both innate and acquired: the external environment of objects, places, and events only stimulates the mind to form impressions. Why should we be surprised to find intelligence, emotions, and sentience in other animals?
At this point in his discussion McGinn claims that nativism is unintelligible and a mystery (60-61). But it is not. On his bibliography, while he includes Pinker, he cites The Language Instinct but not How the Mind Works. Without going down the list, there are a number of cognitive or evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists who could have been marshaled to demonstrate how this is not a mystery. Granted the author says, early on, he does not want to write a heavily researched book, but credible backing would have helped his claims about why knowledge is innate and how this is physically and evolutionarily so. I suppose, though, one of the virtues of McGinn’s book is its simple directness.
Essentially, McGinn is circumventing the so-called hard problem. Certainly, how do consciousness and thought arise from molecules? That too has been addressed by, among others, Feinberg and Mallat. By using the word mystery McGinn is making somewhat supernatural a natural process that has evolved over time, much as the complexity of the eye has evolved from a simple photoreceptor cell. Like his delay to invoke evolution, this language undercuts his central argument. We know apes have ideas of things. Chimpanzees and orangutans will try to figure out how something mechanical works. Creationists make a special case for human uniqueness, so how then to explain theory of mind and intelligence of apes. Why would God have made a chimpanzee as smart as a four-year-old child? McGinn relies here on Chomsky who claims human uniqueness in terms of language, but meantime apes can use and understand our sign language, so say nothing about their own sophisticated forms of bodily and vocal communication.
And why would the inheritance of ideas, according to McGinn, be any more mysterious? Consider how mating preferences that require mentality get passed on. It is not only instinctual but cultural, seen too in the generational evolution of bird songs. He says that “Thinking is not an organic process...”(65). But has not that been his whole argument, the organic nature of the mind? Thinking and consciousness are organic, because when one dies they stop. McGinn might be looking for answers not so much in gene coding but in gene switching, so-called junk DNA. So while we are ninety-nine percent similar to chimpanzees genetically, there is a massive amount of switching genes that accounts, perhaps, for our significant differences. This does not make us special, only different in how the ecological niche we have filled is much larger and required new forms of gene expression. In others words, it’s not a supernatural mystery. There really is no mind/body problem, as he suggests (70) since the mind is part of the body, almost as one. The brain in the vat is still embodied – eighty five billion neural cells and a trillion or so neural connections are as one body.
McGinn’s book is a valuable primer for philosophers who are interested in non-metaphysical theories about the mind. Because of its small size and limited scope, there is much not covered, including mutation, drift, and sexual or social selection. There is no mention of cultural evolution, also an important component related to primate evolution. There are many hominid and hominin species that have not survived. This does not give us or chimpanzees special status. On average, Neanderthals had brains larger than ours. Adaptations are a matter of selection pressures. At some point near the end of the book McGinn talks about human nature, but such terminology can be problematic. We have not been so created, with a human nature. Rather, we have evolved, and have survived over other species like ours, in a way that seems to make us appear to have a human nature. While there are continuities across species, there is also something distinct about a species. We human beings are a composite of multiple dimensions of evolution that have channeled adaptations from all our preceding primate ancestors and organisms before them.
Towards the end of the book McGinn suggests an important point that needs more emphasis in today’s culture. Many great ideas in human history are completely external but have become manifest through innate, inherited parts, what Michael Tomasello would call the ratchet effect. Scientific thinking, then, is not wholly objective but contains at least a soupçon of innate ideas. Just as we need philosophers like McGinn to shed scientific light on philosophy, we need scientists to acknowledge how some big ideas come from within, contrary to a purely scientific method. That is, there is a certain amount of creativity and imagination involved in scientific thinking. McGinn handily covers this by noting how we are “born referring” (88). Reference is built into us (or at least the ability) and not dependent on external stimulus. We can make complex ideas from basic, innate ideas. And in reverse, as McGinn proves, an able writer can render complex ideas through history understandable.
- Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D., Professor, St. Francis College, N.Y. Author: Making Mind: Moral Sense and Consciousness (2014) and Evolution and Human Culture (2016)
Copyright©2016 Gregory F. Tague – All Rights Reserved
Published courtesy of the Consciousness, Literature and the Arts journal, Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, editor