How the Mind Works.


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Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. xii+660 pp. $29.95This large book with a somewhat pretentious title considers the mind from what appears to me to be the most fruitful of standpoints: as massively parallel computers and as a device molded by evolution during great times. Pinker has a somewhat unusual method of referencing, in that he notes all of his offhand references in a page list; in a separate bibliography he gives the exact reference. After some time, I discovered it to be quite convenient. The book is written in a slangy style, and it is useful to have some knowledge of movies, pop music, and science fiction to follow every part of it. The first section relates how modern computers work and describes the important ideas of Turing, Goedel, Herbert Simon, and others. The working of computers is related to the working of the mind, and considerable attention is given to the problems that had to be solved for humans to recognize their surroundings and make sense of them: e.g., an analysis of the visual system. At first glimpse that doesn't seem greatly complicated, but, as Pinker points out, careful analysis reveals an enormous number of problems that somehow the brain surmounts. Crick (1994) in An Astounding Hypothesis may well have done a better job of pinning down the circuits in the brain that are involved in seeing, but Pinker makes you think about what we generally take for granted. Early on, we are treated to some youthful hyperbole: "Before computational ideas were imported in the 1950s and 1960s by Newell and Simon and the psychologists George Miller and Donald Broadbent, psychology was dull, dull, dull....Since then, psychology has brought the questions of history's deepest thinkers into the laboratory and has made thousands of discoveries on every aspect of the mind that could not have been dreamed a few decades ago" (p. 84)!The next part of this book is devoted to explaining evolution, Darwin and Wallace, and then using Homo sapiens' evolution as a hunter and gatherer for the last 100,000 or so years to explain our present-day reactions to a variety of stimuli. There is an interesting view of Wallace who, although he got the general idea of evolution correct, had only a fraction of Darwin's massive evidence at hand and totally misconstrued the mind and intelligence of the natives he had seen in Borneo. This led him to assume that the natives had developed large brains for which they had no use. This analysis caused some problems because the native hunters and foragers, in fact, required an intelligence no less acute then that of a neurosurgeon. Darwin understood this point.Sometimes explanations based on evolutionary consideration seem to be "just so stories," but I'm not sure. Take, as Pinker does, the problem of delaying immediate gratification for a longer term with greater ultimate satisfaction. In the educated middle class, this is routinely practiced, e.g., going to college or graduate school and forgoing a paying job for some years. However, in the urban ghettos where the future is steeply discounted, criminals and even ordinary inhabitants realize that their life expectancy is short and opt for more immediate gratification. In this case, a sensible choice.

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