How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I very much enjoyed the book. The topic is more “Why The Mind Works”, and with that being the author’s actual stated aim, the book seems misnamed. The author is making a case for seeing the mind as an evolved consortium of mental modules. Much of the thought in the book is not necessarily his own – the book is abounding with quotations, some in defense, some to rail against. The quotes, frankly, are frequently more interesting than the surrounding detail. He even points out early on that he is not adding new information, but seeking to bring it together in a readable form. Despite, he balances things fairly well and brings a coherent whole out of it.
Pinker is a little full of himself. He can be dismissive. He will mine the sources for whatever can be used in support of his point, even if the authors themselves disagree with him, sometimes pointedly. One example of his unique way of handling other viewpoints stuck out to me:
When I mentioned the theory of parent-offspring conflict to console a colleague whose two-year-old son had become a pest after the birth of a younger brother he snapped. “All you’re saying is that people are selfish!” Sleepless for weeks, he could be forgiven for missing the point. Clearly, parents aren’t selfish; parents are the least selfish entities in the known universe. But they aren’t infinitely selfless either… (p.442)
To which one can only remark that while studying psychology and the mind, Pinker had forgotten or ignored the example of Job and his rather unhelpful set of friends. He had been a terrible friend and/or colleague, offering up his “wisdom” in place of the sympathy requested. I chuckle, though I am probably as bad at times, but he seems unaware of how pompous this recounting makes him appear. “He could be forgiven…” The temerity! Ah, well.
But back to the point, he is usually successful in making his point. He presents a pretty compelling case for how many of the modules we see at work in the mind could have been “designed” through adaptive means. But in a number of instances he ends by simply spitting out a multitude of possibilities to answer the open question. This he does while maintaining the certitude that adaptive means can account for all we could want to know about the inner workings of the mind.
Until it isn’t. With music, specifically, he seems to get into weeds, giving all manner of technical details of harmonics and such, as if, lacking a good argument for how we adapted a sense for the pleasures of music, he might bore the reader into acceptance through fine print. In the end, music in his opinion is non-adaptive, “cheesecake” in his words – a pleasureful cocktail that plays off of the other modules, but was not itself selected for. At least he admits the picture he paints of our musical inclinations is “speculative”.
Of course a book that tries to treat the whole of the human mind and its development will have to address the subject of religion and our propensity towards it. Pinker comes off derisively, from the introduction to the bitter end, but most of the time it did not distract from the meat of what was being said. While arrogant, he is as dismissive of religious practitioners as he is of feminists unable to square their moral convictions with the reality of the evolved nature of our minds (for good or bad!). Though, he does apologize – backhandedly – to the feminists:
I wish I could have discussed the evolutionary psychology of sexuality without the asides about feminist theory, but in today’s intellectual climate that is impossible…These kinds of arguments combine bad biology (nature is nice), bad psychology (the mind is created by society), and bad ethics (what people like is good). Feminism would lose nothing by giving them up. (pp.492-3)
The book naturally flows from the fundamental modules until it reaches the point where one is not sure what is adaptation and what is the working of culture with the framework it has been given. In turn he discusses vision, body adaptation, language, logic (of a sort), probability (especially in the sense of cheat sensing), mating and reproduction, friendship, and onto arts and literature.
Getting to the big question of sentience, he spends very little time in throwing out a “we can’t know”, as if that is somehow better than the answers he dismisses so quickly and easily. An unsatisfying ending. But this does not overcome the mountain of enjoyed reading that makes up the book.
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