REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” by Gary Marcus, by t.n.s.r. bob

FROM THE AUTHOR’S WEBSITE: “Gary Marcus author of the The Birth of the Mind (Basic Books, 2004, translated into 6 languages) and editor of The Norton Psychology Reader, is an award-winning Professor of Psychology at New York University, where he is director of the NYU Center for Child Language. His research, published in leading journals such as Science, Nature, Cognition, and Psychological Science, focuses on the evolution and development of the human mind.

Marcus also enjoys writing for the general public, in venues ranging from The New York Times to The Huffington Post. His newest book, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, will be published in Spring 2008.”

In an article in The Economist last year, a writer made the observation that when it comes  to economics, most economists — though generally accepting of Darwinian evolution — seem to draw a line at the neck, treating the human mind as a super-rational exception to the evolutionary rule expressed early in Gary Marcus’ book:

“Nature is prone to making kluges because it doesn’t “care” whether its products are perfect or elegant.  If something works, it spreads.  If it doesn’t work, it dies out.  Genes that lead to successful outcomes tend to propagate; genes that produce creatures that can’t cut it tend to fade away; all else is metaphor.  Adequacy, not beauty, is the name of the game”.

“Kluge” is slang for “A clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem”, and the reality that an evolutionary kluge is what we have for a brain is the thesis of this book.

I’ll say at the outset that I’m sympathetic to this idea, as I’ve long understood that everything about life on this planet (including us humans) represents the best that nature could do with the materials at hand and not (as those holding to a special creation mindset would argue) an example of “perfection” in any reasonable form of that notion.  And although there were a few times where I thought the author heavy-handed in the hammering home of this notion, I can find no fault with his arguments supported by plentiful examples relevant research.

My presupposition that we humans are rational creatures has been shaken of late, and this book has helped me to understand the “why” of  that confusion.  Our reasoning, rational brain is but the latest (and weakest) addition to the ancient apparatus in our skulls:

“The hindbrain, the oldest of the three (dating from at least half a billion years ago), controls respiration, balance, alertness, and other functions that are as critical to a dinosaur as to a human.  The midbrain, layered on soon afterward, coordinates visual and auditory reflexes and controls functions such as eye movements.  The forebrain, the final division to come online, governs things such as language and decision-making, but in ways that often depend on older systems.  As any neuroscientist textbook will tell you, language relies heavily on Broca’s area, a walnut-sized region of the left forebrain, but it too relies on older systems, such as the cerebellum, and ancestral memory systems that are not particularly well suited to the job.  Over the course of evolution our brain has become a bit like a palimpsest, and ancient manuscript with layers of text written over it many times, old bits still hiding behind the new.”

One great aspect of this book is the form it gives to patterns of thought and perception that we all experience.  This is helpful in two ways: the first being a greater appreciation for — and sympathetic acceptance of — our natural human (idiosyncratic) ways of cognition, and secondly; offering ways of working around the natural limitations such an evolved animal brain brings with it.

In technical terms, the book is well written and nicely organized, making it a pleasure to read.  And the scientific information is packed more densely than a Christmas fruitcake.  A particularly refreshing (and mildly surprising) aspect of the book is how directly the author takes on the “creationist” view, over and over again.  But then, writing for an American audience (where a majority of the population holds that God was involved in our making one way or another) why wouldn’t any author on such a subject deal directly with those beliefs.

I recommend this book highly, with thanks to the scientific researcher who pulled it off her shelf for me to read.

t.n.s.r. bob

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