Janice Wright has been gracious enough to send us a review of Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works. Obviously not a programmming manual (well, perhaps more then we want to think. Hmm.), this is an insightful book into the little that is known about how the human brain functions. Click below if you like your grey matter.
Book reviews often start "If you only read one book this year...", but considering the slashdot readership, I'll amend that to: "If you only read one non-fiction book not published by O'Reilly this year, this one would be a good choice." The second chapter is about computers, and the second to last chapter is about sex, so a geek's gotta love it.
Though to be honest, the computer bits aren't terribly technical. They focus on the computational theory of the mind, and how as a theory, it gives us a useful, but woefully incomplete understanding of the human mind. There is, however, a fascinating technical explanation of stereo vision and how stereograms (magic-eye pictures) work, why some people can't see them, and a great explanation of how to do the trick with your eyes that you need to see them - the stereogram in the book is the first one I've ever been able to see, and it's almost worth the cover price just for that.
Reading Stephen Pinker, I always get the impression that his style comes from years of trying to keep his first-year university psychology class awake on a Monday morning at 9am. He does this with a combination of some very challenging ideas and highly entertaining writing.
In the first chapter, he makes the somewhat radical claim that innate biology has an equal, if not greater role than culture in shaping our desires, thoughts, and actions. He then spends the next 500 pages convincing us with a combination of well reasoned arguments and the results of rigorous scientific studies. He is, however, careful to remind us regularly of the limits of scientific enquiry, and of how much we still don't know "Virtually nothing is known about the functioning microcircuitry of the human brain, because there is a shortage of volunteers willing to give up their brains to science before they are dead." (p. 184)
His main thrust throughout much of the book is to debunk the "natural = good" equation that is quoted to so often these days. Aggressiveness, for instance, especially in male humans, is 'natural' in the sense that it was once adaptive (i.e. a trait that allowed it's organism to reproduce more successfully). Aggressiveness, is therefore 'natural' to male humans. This doesn't mean that men "can't help" being aggressive, or that men who beat their wives are somehow not at fault because it is "in their genes". As Pinker puts it:
Having explained how the brain thinks and how the eyes see, he goes on to consider how the capacity for emotion may have been adaptive (and therefore selected for) in our early evolution, and starts with a great example: "the yuck factor". We get a very cool theory of why we find certain things disgusting, why what's considered disgusting is highly cultural, and why the thing that elicits the strongest "yuck factor" response is food."...happiness and virtue have nothing to do with what natural selection designed us to accomplish in the ancestral environment. They are for us to determine. In saying this, I am no hypocrite even though I am a conventional straight white male. Well into my procreating years I am, so far, voluntarily childless, having squandered my biological resources reading and writing, doing research, helping out friends, and jogging in circles, ignoring the solemn imperative to spread my genes. By Darwinian standards I am a horrible mistake, a pathetic looser, not one iota less than if I were a card-carrying member of Queer Nation. But I am happy to be that way, and if my genes don't like it, they can go jump in the lake."
The first six chapters have covered key aspects of the human condition:
|Chapter 1: The Standard Equipment||talks about how the brain is wired|
|Chapter 2: Thinking Machines||covers the "human mind as computer" and the computational theory of the mind|
|Chapter 3: Revenge of the Nerds||explains Pinker's theory of how early humans prospered by exploiting what he calls the "cognitive niche"|
|Chapter 4: The Mind's Eye||explains the role that vision, and in particular colour, stereo vision as one of the factors that allowed humans to evolve such prodigious brain-power|
|Chapter 5: Good Ideas||is about how we use logic, comparison, and statistics in interpersonal relationships|
|Chapter 6: Hotheads||deals with the gamut of human emotions from altruism to envy|
All this has laid the groundwork for the second to last chapter, which he calls "Family Values". Some theories in the social sciences claim that people are born as virtually "blank slates" and that their upbringing, socialisation, education, etc. accounts for the way they 'turn out'. Criminality, substance abuse, and even the more petty human failings such as greed and vanity are assumed to have psychological underpinnings that come from one's childhood experiences. Pinker claims instead that some parts of the 'dark side' of being human is genetically encoded. He emphasises that this does not in any way excuse anti-social behaviour, but is simply another way of looking at what our conscience is up against when we feel the urge to take the credit for another's idea, sneak onto the subway without paying, help ourselves to the larger piece of cake, or cheat on our partner.
It's a long book, and it may take a little perserverence to get though it, but it's worth the effort because Pinker's ideas are interesting, challenging, and thought provoking. I don't agree with everything he says, and I think he sometimes over-simplifies an example to the point where it's no longer valid. Often, I found myself thinking "But human being are more complicated than that!" when he was explaining some facet of modern human behaviour in terms of the selection pressures of hunter-gatherers on the savannah. But all-in-all it is well worth reading. And at the end of it either you'll be able to see stereograms or you'll know exactly why you can't. To pick this book, head over to Amazon.