Archive for December, 2010
REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” by Gary Marcus, by t.n.s.r. bobSunday, December 26th, 2010
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.
Once upon a time there was a living organism that (after eons of evolution and natural selection) achieved a level of consciousness that brought with it the ability to both observe and contemplate her world. So this organism began to consider her environment: the mountains and valleys over which she traveled, the sky above, the air she breathed, the ground beneath her feet.
With others of her kind, she shared her observations and together they began to form an understanding of their own existence. Though based, at first, on speculation and imagination, over time their ideas came to be rooted more and more in evidence uncovered through scientific means.
They developed theories about the origins of life based upon the leftovers of evolution around them. They studied the organisms in their world that were similar (and different) from themselves for insights into their own behaviors, and from the evidence of their own past forms captured in their individual DNA they came to understand the ancestry that they shared with every other living thing.
They theorized, they experimented, they learned, and over time their knowledge began to increase at an ever accelerating pace, with each new discovery opening doors to more and more research. Through their knowledge and technology, their population began to explode: they lived longer, they lived healthier and they began to alter their environment to meet their needs.
Then one day the world they lived in seemed to change, as if there was a sickness upon the entire planet that they called home. The scientific evidence suggested that it was the very reproductive and technical success of these curious organisms that was causing the sickness. Others refused to believe it, and instead insisted it was part of a natural cycle that had happened before, and would happen again. In the end, the world that they lived in (and which they relied upon for their life) became so sick and weak that the organisms themselves began to die as their environment changed, forcing millions of them to uproot themselves and look for healthier environments to live.
The organism I’m imaging for this allegory this could be any one of the 90 trillion or so microbes with which we share our bodies, and their world (that they had struggled so diligently to comprehend) a single living human host who was made ill by a proliferation of deleterious microscopic flora.
The obvious analogy I draw is to us humans who have blossomed in such a short time into a global population of incredible technical and mental power but who, at the same time (hindered in no small part by the limitations of our evolved mammalian brain — see this week’s book review) have managed to put into motion two parallel runaway trains: one running toward an exciting future of scientific progress and the other toward a global climate (and resource) crisis that could easily make our pleasant lives here much less pleasant and even doubtful.
Where and when these “trains” are to intersect is up for debate. I’m afraid I tend toward a concern that such a collision is inevitable at some point. (After all, based on the evidence of history, even if we dodge this particular bullet there will inevitably be another).
The question that most immediately concerns me is of two parts: 1) are we racing toward a global event that will happen in my own lifetime and, 2) is there really anything that we humans can do about it — at this point?
Because, in a lot of ways, we are the microbes looking out at the world. Our planet is physically enormous compared to our own (relatively) tiny size, and beyond us is a vast universe that is barely comprehensible in scale. No less difficult to comprehend is the microbial ecosystem that we carry with us every day and night.
The crux of my worry is that our natural human tendency to see ourselves as the center of the universe is both blinding us to the fragility of the band of life we occupy on this planet and exaggerating our actual power to forestall the forces of climate change that we have managed to nudge into motion.
That is where the book I’ve reviewed this week (“Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” by Gary Marcus) is both helpful and disturbing, as it reveals the many clunky ways in which the evolved human mind works. Though we humans are capable of reasonable and rational thought, we are still very much the primal animal that has to work at sorting the wheat from the chaff in terms of evidence and belief. And, frankly, I don’t think enough people are working hard enough at it!
To be clear, to me the question of whether or not I “believe” that this round of climate change has been caused by we humans (I tend to accept the science, of course) may be moot, as there seems to be a reality unfolding that should make even those who claim it’s a “perfectly natural” fluctuation in climate shit in their pants. (Species extinction is also perfectly natural, for that matter).
But I’m just one microbe tossing out his opinion about an ecosystem that is vast and complex, and hence my two-cents worth may be worth just about that much in the grand scheme of things. One thing, however, is for sure: we will soon enough find out how good modern scientists are at predicting global trends, and probably in the lifetime of many of us.
We live in interesting times, to be sure. And yet, no matter how hard I try, I can only see so much of it, and my glimpse is incredibly brief when measured against the march of time that we now know (through science) came before we humans were even here.
We are the clever, lucky microbes who get to be the ones to watch it all unfold. With a handful of other sentient creatures, we can think about our lives as they happen, and we can choose to live them in the best way we can.
Funny how no matter how vast life really is, the living of it will always be local, and personal. Whether we be microbe or human being.
Ah, it’s that magical, most wonderful time of the year…made ever less magical and wondrous by “holiday creep”: wherein a combination of commercial interests and our own (recently-evolved) ability to wring every ounce of sentiment from any experience (through technology that puts any song, image, or film at our fingertips for instant viewing) results in a “holiday season” that now seems to begin sometime in September!
We’ve progressed to the point that it can be a bit of a shock (at least for someone of my “middle age”) to watch American movies from the 1940′s and see George Bailey bringing home the “merry Christmas wreath” — or the Bishop’s wife ordering a tree for delivery — on (gasp!) Christmas Eve! What’s wrong with these people?
I heard the writer/director Nora Ephron in a recent interview lament that our current ability to record just about anything for later viewing (as opposed to the old experience of simply “missing” something on TV or in the theater) is creating a situation where we can now find ourselves hours behind on our entertainment each day.
This is not about slamming technology, or the creativity of the human mind that keeps thinking these new gadgets up. The reality I’m looking at is that we are novelty-seeking primates that — in some fundamental ways — can’t help ourselves when presented with all-you-can-watch stimulation. (I mean, really, who doesn’t want to watch over and over something that makes you feel good, happy or moved to tears?)
I now think of the book “Supernormal Stimuli” (reviewed recently here) when I avail myself of the convenience (and mastery over time and space) that something as “simple” as a DVD player offers me. I have used YouTube to watch snippets from TV shows that made an impression on me (the one time I saw them when there were broadcast in my youth). To a certain extent, I am deeply grateful for the community of like-minded nostalgist mammals that post these bits and pieces of popular culture that allow me to re-visit — pretty much at-will — passages of my life lived to-date. (After all, I’m at a stage in that life where I’m beginning to see just how swiftly it is passing, so I’m sympathetic to the desire to wring as much pleasure from the time we do have as is humanly possible).
But of course, that is the thing: We humans have made all sorts of things possible for ourselves. No matter how much I might view myself as low in income compared to others, the bare, naked fact is that I have access to an historically un-heard of variety and quantity of safe, moderately-priced foods in clean stores; safe water for drinking and bathing; an indoor toilet; electricity for light, and the cooking and refrigeration of food; a motor vehicle and supplies of fuel I can buy for it; inexpensive clothing that requires no hunting, skinning, tanning or weaving on my part; and easily-acquired tools and gadgets that allow me to talk to whoever I want to no matter where in the world they might currently be. How can this possibly be described as an impoverished life when held up to the experience of most of my fellow humans in the world right now, and just about every single one of my scraping, hunting, gathering, struggling ancestors all the way back to the first mammals?
The answer to that is simple: there is no comparison. No other creature on earth lives like we do.
The progression of our technology has been — and continues to be — geometric: the more we invent, the more we are able to invent. And even as science fiction continues to mis-guess how the future will appear, the future keeps arriving incrementally like some subtle tsunami.
I’ve come to the conclusion that such is our fate. At this point our technology is evolving so rapidly that there is really nothing else to be done but to put it into use and see how the human animal adapts. Or doesn’t. And so we’ll find out how this generation of thumb-texting kids develops — what kind of human beings they turn into — and how pissed they end up being at being guinea pigs for a new wave of human technology (assuming, of course, that they care enough to notice and reflect).
Biologists talk about the fact that bacterium and viruses reproduce so much more rapidly than humans that they are always going to be ahead of us in the race to adapt. As things now stand, our human-created technology has the same advantage over the host organism that continues to bring it into being. And like the many bacteria that are useful (even essential) to our survival as living beings, most of our technology is probably beneficial (or, at least not detrimental or fatal), but then, those aren’t the bugs we’re worried about, are they?
There is some evidence that the act of ridding humans of parasites (at least in the “developed world) has had the un-intended consequence of increasing the prevalence and severity of allergies. Turns out some of those parasites — though detrimental when running amok in our gut — co-evolved with their host organism to help it tolerate allergens in return for a little blood-sucking from its supply. Not surprising, really, now that we know that half of the human body’s cellular weight is bacteria, or that the percentage of our genome that is actually human (not bacterial or viral) DNA is in the single digits.
So what’s that have to do with Christmas? Well, in our historic economic and technological affluence, we have re-made the world into one that would give any of our primate cousins one hell of a woody: even the relatively non-rich of us can stimulate him- or herself in a bewildering variety of ways. We are clever apes, indeed, and the most social ones around, even as our technology and affluence makes us less and less dependent on each other for our jollies (think of the Hugh Grant character in the opening scenes of the film About A Boy — available on DVD or on-line!). Where will it all lead? Who knows.
The “holidays” are just a rather dramatic example of the power we now have to package, record, capture, replay and extend any experience we want to. And though we continue to attach to the “Christmas Season” the terms of the unique, special and one-night-a-year that it may once have merited, it is, in reality, becoming common, pedestrian and ubiquitous.
We now have to power to suck just about any endorphin-producing experience dry. (As clever apes we can barely help ourselves!) And even as I lament the loss of the rare and un-retrievable, I think I would be hard-pressed to give up the many benefits our technology has brought us.
(Not that I am offered that choice, really: to go back in time. Popular as that notion may be — particularly among the conservatively religious or political — it ain’t gonna’ happen. For better or worse, we’re all on this ride together to the end).
I take the holiday season, then, as an opportunity to reflect on just who and what we humans are. In a funny way, you need look no further for confirmation of our animal status: we are distractible and can’t keep from looking at the shiny thing or turning toward the loud noise or — in this case — watching our favorite Christmas movie for the umpteenth time, or packing our phones or devices with favorite songs, or eating our favorite Christmas cookies five days in a row.
And as Christmas approaches I take a step back and look warmly upon my own kind: at the near desperation that can attend our attempts to make a single day (or “season”) special, or meaningful; the bitter-sweetness of those who can’t be “home for the holidays”; or the “poor” who find a warm place and a hot meal donated and served up by their fellow humans (in a ritual that probably makes them feel better than the best Christmas movie). In short: the experiences we all share as social humans in our own families and communities.
When I was in boot camp in California, back in 1978, I was selected by my commanders as trustworthy to accept an invitation from some civilians who wanted to feed Thanksgiving dinner to some lonesome recruits. Suddenly I was transported from the bizarre world of my training barracks to a small home in the hills of Oakland. Two single neighbor ladies fed three of us “Coasties” all we could eat (which, for a hungry and harried “boot”, was a lot). I had mincemeat pie for the first time. The host offered each of us the use of her phone to call home long-distance, and we luxuriated in the homey warmth and kindness of the evening, loosening our dress-uniform ties, drinking wine and feasting on home-made bounty.
That experience is a treasure of mine. It’s the kind of thing that could be a scene in a movie, or a touching human interest story on the evening news. But, thinking about it, I’m glad there is no video tape of the evening that I could re-visit at will over the thirty years since it occurred. If there were, the potency of that evening would have long ago been diluted.
For in the end, the thing some of us are really after is the singular, the exquisite, the truly meaningful treasure that the evening I described is (and may always be) for me. Compared to such as that all of the forced emotion of the holiday industry is so much junk food: good enough in a pinch, but certainly not something to inspire a Norman Rockwell paining.
So for this holiday season, I wish you all something un-recordable and un-replayable on any electronic device, yet all the more indelible for that.
It’s a beautiful, clear and calm December morning. As I pedaled my way toward some morning coffee, I felt a familiar sense of solitude even as I traversed city streets, dodged the slow-driving church traffic, and rode through passages of silence save for the cooing of mourning dove and the cawing of chatty crows.
I think it was both the exposure to nature that bicycle riding offers combined with the man-engineered machine of metal and rubber which carried me that put me in the mind of my complicated human relationship to the rest of the animal kingdom.
I’ve been thinking lately that it would be better if more humans thought of themselves as animals rather than as god’s special creatures. My assumption is that this would make us better humans: more humane, more humble and, therefore, more realistic and compassionate. I’m projecting, of course, because this is the effect such an understanding has had on me. (I cannot be certain it would have the same beneficial effect on everybody else, but I hope).
But as I rode and pondered that idea this morning, I realized the difficulty we have in seeing ourselves as just one among the myriad other living, breathing creatures that we share this planet with.
Perhaps an apt illustration for this difficulty might be a pendulum that slowly swings from one end of its arc to the other, with one end representing an awareness of all that we share with our animal cousins and the other end the great gulf of consciousness and culture that separates us from our barking, mooing and caw-cawing cousins.
I’m sure many of us have experienced those moments of awareness when a passage in a book or a nature program on television blows our mind a bit with a demonstration of the behaviors we share with other primates, for example, or our DNA links with everything from lettuce to mice. It is in these moments that I am overcome with a sort of global feeling that “I’m no different from any other animal”. But then I climb into my car, or open my refrigerator or take a dose of modern medicine and consider just how far this species of ape has come in the last few thousand years (or, in the case of cars, refrigerators and medicine, the last hundred years!), and I am suddenly swinging back the other way, away from my feelings of deep kinship with dolphins and whales.
But soon enough, I’ll run across another fact or witness another behavior in my self or in another animal, and the pendulum is pulled back in that direction.
It reminds me of a moment, years ago, as I was driving (not riding!) up University Avenue. Approaching an intersection, I was aware of catching some dim bit of light out of the corner of my eye — in my peripheral vision. At the time, I was well into my post-christian years, but was still working out what those years had meant to me, and how best to make sense of the phenomena that I had taken to be evidence for my beliefs.
It was through that moment of peripheral vision that I suddenly understood “where god lives”. For the idea of god lives in the peripheral vision, as it were, of our consciousness, like a faint star in the night sky. Meaning that whenever we look right at it, the light is too faint to be perceived and, therefore, is not available for full scrutiny. In the same way, if we turn our heads from it, it is gone as well. But in the space in-between the direct gaze and the turned head, god will always flicker like that faint star: impossible to prove or disprove, and impossible to ignore.
I say impossible because the more I learn about the subject, the more I have to accept that irrational belief is so much a part of the consciousness of our species that it would be only slightly less irrational to believe in its near-term eradication than to believe in UFO’s or the power of “aligned” stars to determine personality and whether one will have a four star day or not.
And so even as I begin to get my mind around the limitations of the human mind (and see in ever greater detail how much we over-sell the capacities of our primate brain even as we under-appreciate the evolutionary wonder of what we can do with the animal equipment we’ve got) I hold out less hope that a critical mass of humans will suddenly “come to their senses” and start making long-term choices based on reason and the best science and behave in the way I think they should.
Which, of course, swings my pendulum back to seeing humans as animals acting out of raw instincts that, in our present circumstance, are much more likely to get us killed than assure our survival.
In that respect we are first of all defensive and aggressive creatures, with friendship and generosity our secondary (albeit impressive) response to strangers and challenging situations. It is our reason that has allowed us to moderate our aggression and develop the bonds of social trust that allow us to live in cooperative communities both large and small.
Acknowledging this, my pendulum swings again toward our exceptional status in the animal world. Yet even within our social structure, the bared tooth and fang are ever ready to be deployed when we feel threatened.
And so back and forth it goes.
But that is the place of we humans in the animal world. We are both common and exceptional at the same time. (Just as we are unique personalities that feel both special and common as dirt at different times in our lives).
Our capacity to have such thoughts about ourselves is one of the things that makes not only the pendulum swing, but allows the internal “pendulum” to exist at all! And we can still assume that this aspect of our consciousness is one of the major things that sets us apart from our non-bicycle riding animal cousins. For now, at least.
From the publisher’s website: “Hannah Holmes is the author of The Well-Dressed Ape, Suburban Safari and The Secret Life of Dust. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Discover, Outside, and many other publications. She was a frequent contributor on science and nature subjects for the Discovery Channel Online. She lives with her husband and dog in Portland, Maine”.
Hannah Holmes has done an interesting thing here: she has taken the seemingly simple concept of using the language of an anthropologist to describe herself as an animal and done it to great effect. It’s the kind of thing you read and think “Surely someone else has done this before?”. And maybe they have. But Holmes has achieved something unique, I believe.
By using herself as a very specific reference point for each excursion into our animal and evolutionary aspects, the information (which ends up being a comprehensive survey of everything we currently know about animal behavior, DNA, anthropology, sociology and evolution) which she imparts is instantly relatable and readily absorbed. She manages to use herself in fairly personal, intimate ways without making the book about her. Nice trick that.
I would have to say this is a great book for giving people an entertaining and relatively painless (unless the idea that you’re an animal is completely new to you) immersion in the reality of just what kind of animals we humans really are.
I have two criticisms that fizzled.
One: I noticed a lack of footnotes in the text. This bothered me a little bit, and I thought “Well, it’s a popular text, not a science book per se, so I’ll have to take the facts she references at face value”. But the book proved to have a “Selected References” section at the end, so all is well in the world.
Two: Though I felt ever wary of the book foundering in personal narrative, it never went off the rails, and I found myself marking a LOT of passages in this book. (Which for me means new ideas or new facts that I found worthy of remembering). That impressed me. What also impressed me is that this is a book by a journalist who — though her tone may be that of an arm-chair traveler — has clearly been a lot of interesting places and done a lot of interesting things first hand.
A very enjoyable and informative book. Can’t ask for better than that!