New Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects

Steven Pinker


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
This is a book about evolutionary psychology, which Pinker explains at the outset as follows.
The evolutionary psychology of this book is in one sense a straightforward extension of biology, focused on one organ, the mind, of one species,Homo sapiens. But in another sense it is a radical thesis that discards the way issues about the mind have been framed for almost a century.
The view outlined here includes a number of ideas: that the mind is a set of modules whose organisation is genetic, that it is an adaptation designed by natural selection, and that the goal of natural selection is to propagate genes. But Pinker cautions us that none of these ideas should be pushed too far. Each of them contributes part of the explanation but none gives us the whole story.

The book covers a wide range of mental functions, including reasoning, vision and visual imagination (with diagrams to demonstrate visual illusions), emotion (with a lot about sex), and family and social relations. All this is done in an extremely readable and lively style, with plenty of jokes and liberal use of practical examples. Pinker is a first-class exponent of science popularisation in the best sense of the term. But the book was written twenty years ago and science has not stood still in the interval, so is it still worth reading today? I should say undoubtedly yes. All the topics he discusses are still live issues today and the biological view of the mind is still not accepted by everyone. The only place where I felt the book was dated was, depressingly, where Pinker finds grounds for an improvement in our ethics and politics.

Slavery, harem-holding despots, colonial conquest, blood feuds, women as property, institutionalized racism and anti-Semitism, child labor, apartheid, fascism, Stalinism, Leninism and war have vanished from expanses of the world that had suffered them for decades, centuries or millennia.
If only.

One scientific problem that certainly has not gone away since 1997 is what David Chalmers has famously called the Hard Question of consciousness. How can brain activity give rise to subjective experience -- love, hate, fear, anger, the sensation of redness? I was impressed by the honesty with which Pinker confronts this. He doesn't shirk the problem or fob you off with answers that don't really address the question. He freely admits to his own bafflement.

Beats the heck out of me. I have some prejudices, but no idea of how to begin to look for a defensible answer.
All the same, he promises to come clean at the end of the book about what he really thinks, and so he does. In brief, he is one of those who, like the philosopher Colin McGinn, think that the human mind is incapable of solving the riddle of its own consciousness.
Our thoroughgoing perplexity about the enigmas of consciousness, self, will, and knowledge may come from a mismatch between the very nature of these problems and the computational ability that natural selection has fitted us with.
Our minds have evolved to solve certain kinds of problem of a practical nature to help us to survive in the world. What is surprising is that we are also capable of abstract thought (philosophy, science, mathematics). But this capacity can be understood as an extension of the more mundane activity that everyone uses their minds for. It has provided an extraordinary quantity and depth of knowledge about the natural world, including our own minds. But it has not explained the origin of consciousness.

This problem is of a different kind from others in science and it isn't obvious how it can be approached. It may be that we are no better equipped for thinking about it than a chimpanzee is equipped for learning calculus. Some may see this as a failure, a reason for despair, but Pinker finds that it is to be expected and even welcomed because our minds are part of the natural world. They do what natural selection has designed them to do and that inevitably imposes restrictions on what they can do.

We don't poke fun at the eagle for its clumsiness on the ground or fret that the eye is not very good at hearing, because we know that a design can excel at one challenge only by compromising at others.


%T How the Mind Works
%A Pinker, Steven
%I Allen Lane: The Penguin Press
%C London
%D 1997
%G ISBN 0-713-991305
%P xii+660pp
%K psychology
%O hardback

New Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects