Steven Pinker, HOW THE MIND WORKS, post 1

I mentioned this book a few days ago and quoted from it. Now I’ve finished it and will summarize and highlight. As I said earlier, I’ve had this book since it was published in 1997 (I have a first edition, first printing), and have dipped into and browsed through it from time to time, but until now have never sat down and read it all the way through.

This was Pinker’s second big popular book, after THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT in 1994. In a sense here he’s trying to cover all the major things the mind does, aside from language, already covered. And it’s one of the fundamental modern books about current ideas of the brain and mind and of human psychology.

(Norton, xii + 660pp, including 95pp notes, references, and index; October 1997)

Two impressions strike. First, there’s a lot of familiar material here, partly because I’ve seen similar topics in later books, but also because some of those topics were covered by E.O. Wilson, especially his 1978 book ON HUMAN NATURE (review). Both Wilson and Pinker draw heavily on genetic explanations for human behavior that go back to the 1960s, is why. Given that, it was interesting to find the occasional completely new idea, to me, in Pinker, and I’ll highlight those here.

Second, this is sorta two books in one. After a primer on evolution and natural selection, the first half or so considers ways in which the mind interprets and understands reality, e.g. how what we see become images in our mind, somehow, that we can manipulate. The second half concerns what has come to be called evolutionary psychology — how the ways people interact with each other can be understood in terms of evolutionary survival. It’s this second part that resembles Wilson’s book, but since it discusses broad subjects like art and religion, it provides Pinker the opportunity for some insights beyond what Wilson wrote.

I’m going to boil down the main points in each chapter to bullet points. Then provide some quotes at the end.


  • Pinker acknowledges there is much we don’t know about how the mind works. But several “mysteries” have recently been upgraded into “problems.” Further, he weaving the ideas of others into two bigger Ideas: the computational theory of the mind, and the theory of the natural selection of replicators.

Ch1, Standard Equipment.

  • Key theme: “The mind is a system of organs of computation, designed by natural selection to solve the kinds of problems are ancestors faced in their foraging way of life, in particular, understanding and outmaneuvering objects, animals, plants, and other people.”
  • The mind is what the brain does.
  • The mind’s complex design is genetic. Nature vs nurture is so simplistic as to be not even wrong. Most after-the-fact explanations are too simplistic.
  • Things like celibacy and homosexuality don’t need to be ‘explained’; they are expressions of mind that formed in the ancestral environment, now being expressed in a far different world. Everyone misunderstands this. The goal of human existence is not to spread genes; genes spread themselves, by building our minds to enjoy behaviors that spread genes.
  • Resistance to an innate human nature entails three objections (p44ff).
  • How does this affect free will? Science and ethics are two games with the same players; free will is an idealization, like Euclidean geometry.

Ch2, Thinking Machines

  • This chapter concerns intelligence and consciousness
  • “Intelligence is the ability to attain goals by making decisions based on rational rules”
  • Traditional explanations involving souls or force fields and so on didn’t explain anything. intelligence is information–patterns in neural tissue
  • This Computational Theory of the Mind solves the old problem of how mind interacts with matter. In a sense there *is* a homonculus, but it’s a set of symbols corresponding to only certain aspects of the world
  • This theory is now pervasive, leading to discoveries undreamed of decades ago, and overturning the old behaviorist ideas of Skinner et al
  • Human brains use four formats of representation: visual; phological; grammatic; and ‘mentalese’. No spirits or occult forces are needed
  • Yet, critiques of the CTM have come from Searle and Penrose, common sense and abstruse physics respectively, which haven’t survived close examination
  • Connectoplasm is the idea that the structuring of neural networks explains much of human intelligence; it replaces the ideas of ‘association of ideas’ and the blank slate that underlay the Standard Social Science Model
  • The problem of consciousness still seems almost magical. It can mean self-knowledge, or access to information, or sentience. Can we be sentient without intelligence, or vice versa? Several examples of weird implications. Author promises his own hunch about all this, by the end of the book.

Ch3, Revenge of the Nerds

  • Intelligence is not inevitable; in fact the famous Drake equation contains pre-scientific folk beliefs about the inevitable emergence of intelligence.
  • Darwinian natural selection will explain life wherever it is found in the universe; the theory is indispensable within its home discipline, reviled and misunderstood outside it. This chapter spells out its case: how natural selection produces the appearance of design; how replicators compete for resources. Complexity theory [it was big in the ’90s] explains many pretty patterns, but not working biological machines; evolution is *adaptive* complexity.
  • Evidence for natural selection is overwhelming. Yet people so desperately want it to be wrong — they reject the idea that there is no “plan” to the universe. Details of some of the misconceptions about it.
  • Intelligence in varying degrees evolves to solve the problems of particular animals. Humans have *more* instincts than other animals; that’s how we can build rational thinking on top of the bedrock of those intuitions, without having to *think* our way all the way down.
  • Despite our unimpressive body features, we rule over the animals; human evolution, with our big brain, is the revenge of the nerds. Humans exist in a “cognitive niche” enable by four traits: we’re visual; we live in groups; we have hands that grasp; and we learned to hunt via cooperation. If these four traits are essential, they have implications for SETI, implying a certain history of a planet that would evolve intelligent life.
  • People don’t strive to reproduce; people behave in ways genes provoke them too, because those behaviors lead to reproduction (and other things) that lead to the survival of those genes. Good quote p207.7ff (will add quote)

Ch4, The Mind’s Eye

  • A fairly technical chapter about how vision works. What is vision for? “A process that produces from images of the external world a description that is useful to the viewer and not cluttered with irrelevant information”, 213.6. It’s not a ‘complete’ view at all; it filters a lot of stuff out.
  • Then how is it we are so often fooled by illusions? Author cites those “stereograms” (that were popular in the ’90s). That we have stereoscopic vision was not appreciated for thousands of years. The mind somehow accounts for lighting, shading, shaping, to deduce three-D objects from two-D images. And our mind contains shapes, which we recognize in different positions.
  • There’s a theory that we recognize a limited set of generic shapes, or “geons,” that enable us to recognize many combinations of them. Still, images capture only one vantage point, which is why it took art so long to invent perspective. And we don’t remember images very accurately (e.g. few people can draw the face of a penny from memory). Pictures are ambiguous; we conclude that we need abstract symbols and propositions to form thoughts.

Ch5, Good Ideas

  • This chapter is about human reasoning. We evolved an ecological intelligence, shaped by nature selection, to master the local environment, one very different from the environment we now inhabit. Our brains were shaped for fitness [survival], not for truth. [[ A key point observed over and over in this blog, re: various cognitive biases. ]] We want our version of the truth, rather than the truth itself.
  • Thus: In all societies, expertise is uneven; we know we can count on an expert when needed. This gives experts temptation; so we’re vulnerable to quacks.
  • Thus: Caste societies, like the Indians, don’t write histories, so as not to undermine their supposed mythic past; and they neglect other topics, p306.2 [[ This is startling! Fields of knowledge neglected for social reasons. Are there are other fields a society like ours would neglect? ]]
  • We tend to classify, and create categories. Where do these ideas come from? Idealizations? Aren’t stereotypes and racism ‘natural’? Some say yes, with the follow-up that ethics is about turning our statistical categories off and treating people as individuals.
  • The mind is equipped with innate intuitive theories in order to understand the world. [[ As we’ve read about in Bering and others. ]] We can study what it’s like to be a baby; how they perceive objects, and so on and so on. The mind is non-Newtonian. We create stories even about three dots that move around on a screen. Infants divide the world into the animate and the inert. And some of the animate things have minds.
  • Folk biology is essentialistic (i.e. each kind of thing has a unique essence), an attitude discredited by evolution but lingering until Adler in the 1940s. Artifacts are the products of humans. Minds eventually understand that other minds exist, with their own beliefs. What would it be like to think of other people not having minds? Author suggests this describes autistic people. [[ Needless to say, this reflects a simplistic and extreme understanding of autism long before the idea of the “spectrum” came along. ]]
  • Author considers elements of the classic Trivium: logic, arithmetic, and probability. People are not, in general, intuitive about these topics — except when contracts or exchanges of benefits are involved. We’re highly attuned to detecting cheaters (as understood from the evolutionary analysis of altruism). The set of intuitive math skills is fairly small; other concepts were invented as needed by agricultural civilizations for record-keeping. Math is cumulative; the reason Americans do less well at math is that the educational system is ignorant of evolution, i.e. it ignores connections across ways of knowing, and of subroutines, so to speak. Similar issues plague reading instruction. [[ These are provocative points! But it seems accurate given traditional American rote education, memorizing things without looking at bigger pictures. ]]
  • Have humans evolved intuitions about probabilities based on experience? It would seem to be not so: examples of lotteries, risk evaluations, runs of black, hot hands, Linda the bank teller (a famous example). But these may not all discredit human intuition; some people like risk. Some things aren’t actually random. And probability is a tricky concept, not really applicable to single events. We’re advised not to be swayed by anecdotes, but sometimes recent anecdotes really are relevant, if probabilities are based on past events.
  • [[ Right here is where, were this book written today, there would be a section about psychological biases and logical fallacies — he did cover cognitive illusions — and why they evolved, subjects much written about over the past two decades. ]]
  • So again, our mind is equipped with faculties to master the local environment. These are “ways of knowing” or intuitive theories. They’ve become adapted to the modern world, Cognitive scientists have concluded that a handful of concepts about “places, paths, motions, agency, and causation” underlie thousands of words in English and in every other language. Evolution often works by copying functions for use in other ways. Metaphors to live by: argument is war; love is patient; virtue is up; ideas are food.
  • Can natural selection explain genius? We’re all creative, but only a few are prodigies. But we don’t realize even geniuses pay dues for years before producing anything good. And we only remember the lucky ones. We all create good ideas. [[ This captures the problem with the great man theory of history, or Will Durant’s veneration of unique geniuses. ]]

I’ll cover later chapters in one or more follow-up posts.

Every day I reread and copy-edit my post from the evening before. If this comment is still here, I have not yet done so for this post.

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