Published in 1997, How the Mind Works is the most acclaimed and controversial of the books by Steven Pinker, best known as MIT's "Canadian linguist and all-purpose wise guy". Following on from The Language Instinct, in which he argues for the innateness of human linguistic ability, this book essentially applies the same ideas to the rest of the mind.

Pinker is among the best-known exponents of what is often called evolutionary psychology, the use of Darwinian natural and sexual selection to explain the innate features of the human mind. Inevitably, this approach is closely linked in the minds of many academics with sociobiology, its even more controversial, reductionist precursor from the 1960s. Evolutionary psychology is not just sociobiology in modern dress, Pinker explains, because it is heavily influenced by cognitive science (which deals with information processing) as well as by biology. As he puts it: "Cognitive science helps us to understand how a mind is possible and what kind of mind we have. Evolutionary biology helps us to understand why we have the kind of mind we have." How the Mind Works is a synthesis of these two approaches.

Pinker makes a key point about cognitive science early on when he writes, "This book is about the brain, but I will not say much about neurons, hormones and neurotransmitters. That is because the mind is not the brain but what the brain does, and not even everything it does." This is really a statement about cognitive science, not philosophy, but it is interesting to note how Pinker claims "the mind is not the brain", whereas the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who holds many similar views to Pinker, is equally certain in his claim that the mind is the brain.

Pinker's evolutionary psychology is not an attempt to explain absolutely everything in terms of genetic fitness. Anyone who really believed that our behaviour and cognition were completely determined by evolution would clearly be a fool, but this is the kind of straw man which is sometimes made to represent the evolutionary approach. Pinker states clearly: "The mind is an adaptation designed by natural selection, but that does not mean that everything we think, feel, and do is biologically adaptive. We evolved from apes, but that does not mean we have the same minds as apes." His view appears to be that we must understand the evolutionary basis of our minds if we are to understand the subsequent cultural influences on them. For him, the idea of nature "vs." nurture is a hopeless misnomer, like asking whether the area of a rectangle is a product of its width or its length; thinking about nature and nurture as if they were in competition is not a good way to understand the mind.

These quotes all come from the first chapter, "Standard Equipment", in which Pinker sets out his cognitive/adaptationist stall. Here he makes clear his belief in the importance of the evolutionary and computational approaches (of the latter, he says it is "indispensable in addressing the questions we long to answer"). He also introduces us to his opposition, the "Standard Social Science Model", a term used by fellow psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides to describe the view that there is a sharp division between biology and culture, and everything about us beyond the basics comes entirely from cultural influences. The "SSSM" has become the orthodox view of our day, Pinker says, and evolutionary psychology is challenging it now much as sociobiology did in the 1960s, although with more sophistication.

The rest of the book takes on the task of explaining, chapter by chapter, the basis of the important features of our minds and behaviour. Language is not among them, as this had already been covered in The Language Instinct. Pinker works up from the fundamentals - the aspects of cognitive psychology which have traditionally been most scientific, such as information processing and perception - to the "higher-level", more holistic issues of intelligence, emotion and social relationships. The early chapters can get quite technical, e.g. the discussion of so-called neural networks, and most lay-readers are likely to be more interested in the final chapters. Nevertheless, this structure gives the reader an impression that Pinker is gradually working up to something (he does call his last chapter "The Meaning of Life"), which probably makes it a more interesting read than if the various topics of the book had been randomly ordered.

Pinker is well-known for his irresistible prose style, and it colours every page of the book. He writes with an extraordinary ease and familiarity, making hard-researched, even esoteric, scientific ideas seem both obvious and profound. The book is littered with jokes and wisecracks, both of his own, and by others - there are five references just to Woody Allen. His writing is also "irresistible" in the sense that he is just as sharp and humorous when laying into other people's ideas, a trait which has not endeared him to everyone. In the opening chapter he dismisses the current SSSM orthodoxy thus: "The moral equation of most discussions of human nature is simple: innate equals right-wing equals bad." Elsewhere he writes, "Three- to four-month-old infants see objects, remember them, and expect them to obey the laws of continuity, cohesion and contact as they move. Babies are not as stoned as James, Piaget, Freud, and others thought."

Particularly in the later chapters, the book contains some fascinating insights and ideas. For example, one is to do with our everyday reasoning about probability. Smug psychologists know that there are countless examples where our intuitive sense of risk and probability appears hopelessly wrong. One is the notorious "gambler's fallacy"; another is the prevalence of fear of flying in a society where flying is much safer than most forms of transport. Indeed Pinker lists some more of his own, but then turns the idea on its head and argues that our intuitive probability assessment is, well, pretty good if you stick to what it was designed for. He argues that, in a probabilistic world, it is highly unlikely that we could really have evolved to be such hopeless statisticians as is sometimes made out. In fact, we are quite capable of making reasonable judgments about the kind of situations that evolution would have prepared us for; artificial situations like casinos, air travel and psychological tests remind us that we are best at judging the real world, not that we are hopeless at judging anything.

The later chapters also mention some interesting psychological studies. In his discussion of humor, he quotes a study carried out by one Robert Provine:

"Provine did something that no one in the two-thousand-year history of pontificating about humor had ever thought to do: he went out to see what makes people laugh. He had his assistants hang out on the college campus near groups of people in conversation and surreptitiously note what triggered their laughter. What did he find? A typical laugh line was, "I'll see you guys later," or "What is that supposed to mean?!" As they say, you had to be there... "The funniest lines in twelve hundred examples were, "You don't have to drink; just buy us drinks," "Do you date within your species?" and "Are you working here or just trying to look busy?" Provine notes, '...Most pre-laugh dialogue is like that of an interminable television situation comedy scripted by an extremely ungifted writer.'"
In another even more straightforward study mentioned by Pinker, two psychologists had attractive men and women ask members of the opposite sex at a college campus whether they would (a) go out with them, (b) go to their apartment, or (c) sleep with them. "Half the women consented to a date. Half the men consented to a date. Six percent of the women consented to go to the stooge's apartment. Sixty-nine percent of the men consented to go to the stooge's apartment. None of the women consented to sex. Seventy-five percent of the men consented to sex." This is quoted as support of the well-established evolutionary argument that men should be more interested in sexual flings than women; or, rather, the evolutionary explanation of what everyone knew already.

After summarizing the knowledge reached by science as a whole into the evolution of interpersonal relationships, in a chapter called "Family Values", Pinker ends with what is perhaps the most personal and speculative chapter, "The Meaning of Life". He does not answer the question with a single pithy statement, but rather considers the aspects of life that make it more than just a genetic competition - music, love, humour, and so on. He explains how these might have their basis in something biological or evolutionary, but also that this, in a sense, irrelevant. We may once have been mere animals but we are now sentient, intelligent beings with a culture of our own and values that we can personally decide.

This is essentially the view reached by any sane person who recognises the significance of evolution in our lives - we are evolved creatures, with minds built by natural selection, but this doesn't mean we can't try and rise above our biological beginnings. Pinker himself, who has remained childless, has famously told his genes to "go jump in a lake" - not the words of a crazed genetic determinist. By combining determinedly non-PC adaptationism with a clear zest for life, art and culture, Pinker puts himself firmly in the Dawkins/Dennett school of thought, and indeed the book is replete with references to both these writers.

How the Mind Works is personal but informed, outstandingly written but in some academic circles still controversial. Its breadth and depth of scientific insight should be enough to tempt anyone to give it a look, and the wit and lucidity of the writing are at times captivating. Given the polemical nature of its scientific/reductionist approach, it is unlikely to be correct in everything it says. Readers who are not quite convinced of the power of evolutionary arguments may find many parts of the book frustrating; it is not what you could call a "neutral" book. And it does seem at times that Pinker takes his arguments a bit too far, setting up straw men or reaching oversimplified conclusions.

And the title is of course overambitious - Pinker actually writes on the very first page of the preface, "we don't understand how the mind works". (Echoes perhaps of Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained, for which the standard review is, "It's a good book but it doesn't explain consciousness.") But as a lucid collection of insights, a unifying basis for psychology, a challenge to the orthodoxy, and a witty, personal testimony, it succeeds.


Personal suggestion: Read this book in conjunction with Geoffrey Miller's The Mating Mind (2000).

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