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Book Forum: Cognitive Neuroscience   |    
How the Mind Works
DAVID V. FORREST, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 1998;155:846-847.
View Author and Article Information
New York, N.Y.

by Steven Pinker. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1997, 660 pp., $29.95.

If a criterion of intelligence is respect for one's subject, Steven Pinker's awe-filled new book about mentality shows that he is very smart. He entirely avoids the smugness that afflicts many psychologists as they tell us how they duped their subjects, often by misrepresentations, into revealing yet another dumb human habit that smacks all too often of moral weakness. Pinker, an avowed essentialist throughout, regardless of whether this runs contrary to political correctness, is here no less than an apologist for our human minds, which emerge from his descriptions again and again with an earthy good sense derived from the ancient savannas of our evolution. At the beginning of his first section, Standard Equipment, Pinker avers that the intricate tuning to the world around us of our mental instrument will not be simulated by robots in this century or the next. This may come as a surprise to members of the artificial intelligence community, who have predicted human equivalence as early as 2030 (1). But Pinker is a cognitive scientist . . . at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology!

Pinker's second section, Thinking Machines, traces from Fodor's 1968 work (2) the idea that intelligence emerges from not-so-intelligent demons and establishes the computational theory of mind as central. Neural networks are oversold and alone will not account for mind, Pinker thinks, and although he will not accept Penrose's quantum holistic microtubule model, he emphasizes that the structure of networks must account for the concept of the individual and other feats of everyday thinking. He also reminds us, pithily, that "meat made the machines" (p. 97). Pinker spells out consciousness operationally and sees the self as under assault by theories of artificial intelligence, such as Minsky's concept of a society of mental agents (3).

In the third section, Revenge of the Nerds, Pinker notes that we control the fate of tigers, not vice versa, and explains our edge: we are visual animals, live in groups, have hands and upright posture, and go hunting for meat, a complete protein that can best be stored in the bodies of other hunters who will return the favor. This sharing led to male coalitions and reciprocity. Today we are all birds of a feather because 60,000 years ago we dwindled to 10,000 because of some natural disaster, and "evolution is rapid when scattered populations exchange migrants" (p. 205). Claims by social scientists that new kinds of adaptation and selection have extended the biological kind are misleading, according to Pinker: "Human vice is proof that biological evolution . . . is a thing of the past" (p. 207). Some of us buy drugs instead of food, put off childbearing to achieve job status, seek pornography in place of mating, and eat ourselves to death.

In the fourth section, The Mind's Eye, Pinker returns to the subjects of his unpublished Ph.D. thesis and demonstrates in detail why our stereo vision is "one of the glories of nature and a paradigm of how other parts of the mind might work" (p. 241). The goal of vision is a description of the world. Two-dimensional vision is easy: we see what impinges on our retinas, not what we expect to see. "Depth must be painstakingly wrung out of the data" (p. 261). We use reference frames. "If anyone doubts that natural selection uses principles of engineering rediscovered by humans, let them behold the XYZ Cartesian coordinates etched into the bones of the skull! As the head pitches, rolls and yaws, fluid in the canals sloshes around . . . " (p. 262).

The fifth section, The Good Ideas, defines Pinker's opposition to what he calls a current mentality that finds "insane" Pinker's essentialist beliefs that the sexes are not socially constructed, there are universal human emotions, and the real world exists. He struggles to understand racism as a statistical categorizer and apologizes for our non-Newtonian minds, given that we are surrounded by non-Newtonian phenomena such as nerf balls. He agrees with George Miller that the crowning accomplishment of our brains is the real world of our experience, an adaptive interpretation of the really real world of physics. Pinker provides excuses for why abstract math is so hard for us and finds the gambler's fallacy true. Space and force permeate language, and he favors Lakoff's metaphors to live by. Geniuses are wonks and must labor 10 years to produce anything of value.

In the sixth section, Hotheads, Pinker goes beyond most cognitive psychology to present what he calls an unromantic theory of the emotions. He finds Paul MacLean's triune brain theory "fatuous." Emotions are not the adaptive baggage of the lower levels of the triune brain, Pinker tells us. According to the computational theory of mind, the lifeblood of the psyche is information, not energy, and the emotions are designed to propagate our genes, not make us happy. Emotions are universal, and Meade was oh-so-wrong. "And the cerebral cortex does not ride piggyback on an ancient limbic system . . . . The systems work in tandem" (p. 371). Pinker provides a thesaurus of our emotions from an evolutionary perspective and arrives at his "doomsday machine theory," which "stands the Romantic model on its head . . . . The intellect is designed to relinquish control to the passions so that they may serve as guarantors of its offers" (p. 412). "The apparent firewall between passion and reason is not an ineluctable part of the architecture of the brain; it has been programmed in deliberately, because only if the passions are in control can they be credible guarantors" (pp. 412–413). Facial expressions are useful because they are hard to fake. Our emotions are "handcuffed" to the body because they grew out of evolutionary precursors that were; Pinker says that "the grain of truth in Romantic and triune brain theories" is that "modern emotions may exploit the involuntariness of older reflexes" (p. 416).

The seventh section, Family Values, is the most opposed to "the conventional wisdom of Marxists, academic feminists and cafe intellectuals" (p. 431). Blood is thicker than water, and family issues are most clearly understood as investments in our genetic future. Westermark trumps Freud, who had a wet nurse and was therefore oedipally attracted to his mother because she didn't rear him. Sexuality is not socially constructed. Pinker sheds light on the theory that men are "slime": men's eyes for nubile women emerged through evolution in the service of motherhood and fatherhood, and both sexes agree that the husband should be 3 years older than the wife. Regarding culture, Pinker argues, beauty is not sexist; being draped in chadors is, and sexual jealousy in all cultures is a defense against the cuckolded male. Height, status, and success in duels and war are beneficial to men. In short, we can take Pinker's arguments as illustrative that whatever is politically correct is the inverseof what is real for our patients.

In The Meaning of Life, the eighth section, Pinker expounds a theory of music as "auditory cheesecake," a "pleasure technology" (p. 525) like tasty snacks, other arts, tearjerkers, and pornography, and he provides fresh insight into the Schadenfreude of humor as an antidominance weapon. Even religion as a human tendency escapes much criticism and becomes "a technique for success" (p. 556), just a lot less imaginative than the "mindbending ideas of modern science" (p. 557). Consciousness, the self, and free will continue to baffle and are different from science. Taking his "last opportunity to step out of your mind for a moment and see your thoughts and feelings as magnificent contrivances of the natural world rather than as the only way things could be" (p. 563), Pinker argues that "our bafflement at the mysteries of the ages may have been the price we paid for a combinatorial mind" (p. 565). Just as we don't fault the eagle for its clumsiness on the ground, we should remain in awe of our minds for what they can do as creations of the natural world.

Pinker's wit and eloquence are reminiscent of Lewis Thomas crossed with Paul Fussell or Tom Wolfe, and his style provides memorable apothegms on every page. But I found it ironic that, often scornful of Freud in passing, Pinker by his emphasis on the evolutionary and the inborn (as in his Chomskyan approach to language) (4), sees the human world much like an old-fashioned id analyst, perhaps like Georg Groddeck (5). He postulates all the inevitable instinctual forces that culture must oppose and all the inventions of culture to oppose them and, then, in characteristic cognitive science fashion, sidesteps the necessity of dynamic conflict by claiming the two sides are so interactive they are unified, like the programmer and the computer—his metaphor—as though a symbiotic union with one's computer were what human life is like.

Moravec H: Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press, 1988
 
Fodor JA: The appeal to tacit knowledge in psychological explanation. J Philosophy  1968; 65:627–640
[CrossRef]
 
Minsky M: The Society of Mind. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1985
 
Pinker S: The Language Instinct. New York, Harper-Collins, 1994
 
Groddeck G: The Book of the It (1928). New York, Funk, 1950
 
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References

Moravec H: Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press, 1988
 
Fodor JA: The appeal to tacit knowledge in psychological explanation. J Philosophy  1968; 65:627–640
[CrossRef]
 
Minsky M: The Society of Mind. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1985
 
Pinker S: The Language Instinct. New York, Harper-Collins, 1994
 
Groddeck G: The Book of the It (1928). New York, Funk, 1950
 
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