Public intellectual Steven Pinker’s 1997 arguments prove as sophisticated and revelatory today as when they first emerged.
This complex, original work remains nearly as avant-garde today as when Harvard professor, public intellectual and prodigious bestseller Steven Pinker wrote it in 1997. Using humor, Pinker explains difficult concepts and theories including natural selection, the “computational theory of mind” and human nature. Pinker even attempts an ambitious, if ultimately unsatisfying, explanation of the meaning of life. Anyone interested in human behavior and evolutionary psychology will embrace this book.
The mind is a system of organs of computation, designed by natural selection to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors faced. Steven Pinker
Pinker is verbose, to say the least. He writes with admirable momentum and no one could argue with his intellectual credentials and, indeed, his peers do not; they rave about his insights. You may find Pinker’s exuberance tiring, and chose to read in stages. But, consistently, he will reward your efforts.
Evolution of the Brain
Pinker details why scientists agree that the physical body has evolved through a process of natural selection over millions of years.
Evolution is about ends, not means. Becoming smart is just one option.Steven Pinker
The author argues vehemently – he does everything vehemently – against the idea that predetermined, innate genetics might dictate the formation of each person’s mind and, therefore, drive pre-determined behaviors. Instead, he believes the average human brain resembles another brain as closely as the average human body resembles another.
Pinker insists, convincingly, that evidence in support of natural selection is tremendous, ubiquitous and utterly dominant compared to creationism or other theories. So far, he asserts, nothing in biology or science fails to fit natural selection perfectly. Pinker concedes that if one organism fell outside the theory, that would be sufficient to disprove it. Yet he notes with relish that none has. Pinker’s passion for debunking creationism is preaching to the choir; it seems unlikely anyone opposed to science would ever read a word he wrote.
Pinker raises an amusing argument regarding hunting and foraging, which, he believes, require greater intelligence than playing chess or composing symphonies. He holds that the human brain evolved through generations of hunting and gathering, not bookkeeping, hosting parties or performing dentistry.
Intelligence…is the ability to attain goals in the face of obstacles by means of decisions based on rational (truth obeying) rules. Steven Pinker
Human ancestors – primates – evolved complex eyesight, hands, societal living, hunting, and an ability to walk upright and use their hands for brief periods. These attributes require and support greater intelligence, thus favoring the increasing and prolonged expenditure of evolutionary resources on cognitive improvement.
The stereoscopic human eye, which Pinker regards as a marvel of evolution, gives humans an enormous advantage over those with less advanced vision. Despite the difficulty in evolving eyes that see in stereo to produce depth – eyes that learn by early childhood to converge the separate images each eye sees – evolution and natural selection have done so. Pinker presents this as incontrovertible evidence in support of the theory.
But, he notes, people don’t think in images alone; pattern-recognition, information recall and thought must accompany every image and shape. As the brain classifies images and objects, and draws associations among them, people think by putting together words, thoughts, concepts and ideas.
Conflict and Harmony
Humans use their brains to cope with their environments and solve problems. Pinker explains that people don’t think in terms of numbers, but in terms of beliefs, metaphors and behavior.
The evidence suggests that the emotions of all normal members of our species are played on the same keyboard.Steven Pinker
The author recognizes that people will never get along or create a permanent brotherhood of man. He suggests that no form of social engineering can expunge human beings’ natural drives to compete, attain status, seek revenge and fight, especially males. Where cooperation and altruism favor survival and reproduction, peace might prevail, but only in social conditions that keep people’s selfish drives in check. Otherwise, Pinker emphasizes, conflict will emerge.
Computational Theory of Mind
Humans, to Pinker’s wonder, learn the way algorithms learn: each instance of learning improves cognition slightly, building and growing brain power over time.
Returning to a favorite insight, he reminds readers that evolution cares only about reproduction and survival. Species evolve to grow stronger, faster, stealthier, more poisonous or better camouflaged in service of hunting or hiding, greater fecundity, and higher survival rates.
For an organism designed by natural selection, leaving descendants is the reason for being and the goal of all toil and struggle. Steven Pinker
In one of his more compelling sections, Pinker details how human beings – with the development of higher intelligence – sacrificed physical strength, agility and speed. He avows in his strongest terms that the fantastic odds against evolution producing human intelligence suggests that no superior intelligence could exist elsewhere in the universe.
Pinker concedes that people indulge in pleasure, including ingesting mind-altering substances and viewing pornography, which they know may harm their longevity and which confer no genetic upside. When Pinker writes with a perverse glee that no one needs music, art and literature, he finally reveals the point of his book-long argument: Only the arts give life meaning.
Steven Pinker loves language and its processes. In celebrating that love, he uses a great many words – an absurd number. His prose is enthusiastic, sometimes gnomic and often exhausting. Yet his books sell like hotcakes – perhaps because Pinker always adds another and another and another layer to the fascinating arguments and insights he raises.
Man does not live by bread alone, nor by know-how, safety, children or sex. People everywhere spend as much time as they can afford on activities that, in the struggle to survive and reproduce, seem pointless.Steven Pinker
Pinker doesn’t offer any one-sentence arguments from which he moves on quickly. He burrows into each idea – and this work features a vast panoply of ideas – turns it inside out, presents every side of an argument about it and then tells you the obvious, common-sense lesson his myriad perspectives reveal. Obviously, an author would need a great big brain and stupendous powers of persuasion to pull this off. Pinker does, and he provides a fascinating, hypnotizing read.
Steven Pinker also wrote Rationality, Enlightenment Now, The Better Angels of Our Nature and Blank Slate.