How the Mind Works: Notes & Review

how the mind works book cover

How the Mind Works (1997) explains how the human mind processes information by drawing upon evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind (ie.: comparing the mind to a machine).

Summary

About the Author: Steven Pinker is an author and experimental psychologist and currently a psychology professor at Harvard.
He is also the author of “The Blank Slate“, “The Better Angels of Our Nature” and, my favorite “Enlightenment Now“.

Evolutionary Psychology Is Not “After the Facts Storytelling”, But There’s Plenty of Bad Evo Psych

Steven Pinker says that one of the common criticisms of evolutionary psychology is that it’s an exercise in after the facts storytelling (see Nassim Taleb).

He says that it’s not the case, but one of the reasons it might seem like it is, is because there is plenty of people who make up nice-sounding, but ultimately meaningless “evolutionary psychology explanations”.

For example: “men avoid asking for directions because approaching a stranger might get one killed, or “happiness evolved because happy people are pleasant to be around and so they made more friends and allies”. 

The reasons why these are lame is not because they seek to explain behavior and psychology in light of our evolution, but because they do a poor job at it.

Common Mistakes in Evolutionary Psychology

Some of the common mistakes that people who first approach evolutionary psychology:

  • We don’t need to explain everything because there is no evolutionary explanation for everything: our mind is adapted to the savannah, not computer age. We didn’t have institutions such as birth control and adoption agencies. Had we had “birth control trees”, we could have developed to fear them like we fear spiders.
  • Natural selection does not shape behavior directly, but only acts to shape the generator of behavior that is our mind: did not evolve, what evolved is the mind. There is no gene for “adultery”, maybe there could be a “desire” to have sex with someone who is not our spouse could have evolved, but the desire might also be overridden but other desires which are also indirect products of our genes
  • Natural selection cares only about the long term fate of that replicate: to understand and reverse-engineer a machine, we need to understand what it was created for. And the goal of the mind is to maximize the number of copies of the genes that created it
  • People don’t strive to selfishly spread their genes, genes selfish spread themselves: they do it by the way they build and shape our brains, making us enjoy sex, avoid harm, love our children, etc. Our goals are not our genes’. The reviewer who complained that human adultery cannot be a strategy to spread genes because humans take precautions not to get pregnant. But he misses the point: sexual desire is not people’s strategy to propagate genes, it’s people’s strategy to obtain the pleasure of sex, and the pleasure of sex are genes’ strategy to propagate themselves. If the genes don’t get propagated is because we are smarter than they are.
    Genes are a play within a play, not the interior monologue of the player.

Why People Oppose Evolutionary Psychology

Steven Pinker goes here into a theme that he cares deeply about: the leftist and feminist ideology that tries to deny human nature.

You can read “The Blank Slate” for more as he dedicates the whole book to the “denial of human nature”.

But in short, the opposition comes because of three wrong implications about a human nature:

  1. If the mind comes with a structure, different people might have different structures, and that would justify discrimination and oppression
  2. If antisocial behavior like aggression and the pursuit of status snd resources are natural, that would make them natural, and hence good (naturalistic fallacy)
    1. If “bad behavior” is in the genes, then trying to change is futile, and that makes any attempt at improving our society, useless (not true)
  3. If behavior is caused by the genes, then people cannot be held accountable for their bad and harmful behavior

In short, some (leftist) scholars see it like this: innate = right wring = bad.

Instead, says Pinker, understanding behavior means to understand and mediate between:

  1. genes
  2. the anatomy of the brain
  3. the brain’s biochemical state
  4. the persons’s family upbringing
  5. the way society has treated him or her
  6. the stimuli that impinge upon him or her

Species Evolve at One Another’s Expense

We fantasize about the land of milk and honey and peaceful nature, but except for fruits, virtually every food is the body part of some other organisms.

Organisms evolved defenses against being eaten, while wannabe-eaters evolved weapons to overcome those defenses.

The cycle of life is an arms’ race to better eat others.

Most evolved weapons and defenses are genetically programmed and fixed within a lifetime.
That gives humans an unfair advantage. They can attack species that can develop defenses only in subsequent ones.
Many species cannot evolve defenses rapidly enough.

My Note: It’s also partly about learning, though
Some species are particularly bad at surviving humans because they don’t fear humans.
But a few bad encounters can “teach” them to stay away. So, albeit Pinker’s line of reasoning is correct, defenses are also partially learned and not full inborn.

Stereotypes Are Often Based on Accurate 

Talking about “categorizations” and their utility, Pinker also discusses stereotypes.

He says that:

Some stereotypes may be based on good statistics about real people.
In the US, there are large and real differences among ethnic and racial groups in their average performance in school and in their rates of committing violent crimes.
The statistics of course say nothing about heredity or any other putative cause. 
Ordinary people’ estimates about these differences are fairly accurate, and in some cases, people with more contacts with the minority group, such as social workers, have more pessimistic and more accurate estimates of the frequency of negative traits such as illegitimacy and welfare dependency.

What’s racist, Pinker says, is not being realistic in the general trends and numbers, but using the general trends and numbers to make decisions about individual cases.

I applaud Pinker for broaching this politically sensitive topic with some good sense.

We’re Not As Irrational As Psychologists Says

Steven Pinker, like a few other evolutionary psychologists do, doesn’t buy into the much-vaunted irrationality of the human mind.

Contrary to what popular books such as “Thinking Fast and Slow” and “Predictably Irrational” would lead us to believe, people’s thinking is not as stupid as one might believe.

Even when people’s judgment of probability departs from the truth, their reasoning is not necessarily illogical.
Take the gambler’s fallacy, such as the belief that is something random happens many times in a row, it’s less likely to happen in the near future. The gambler’s fallacy does apply to dices, but we didn’t evolve playing dice and slot machines, and many days of cloud might predict sun.

Says Pinker:

In any world but a casino, the gambler’s fallacy is rarely a fallacy.

So when a smoker rationalizes that his 90-year-old parents have been smoking for decades, so the national statics don’t apply to him, he might as well be right.

The Good of The Group Can Lead to Evil Results

Steven Pinker dedicates one chapter to altruism and the evolution of altruism.

We have touched already on this topic in many summaries already so I will not write at length about it.
But Pinker does add one great contribution.

He says that perhaps we should rejoice that we didn’t evolve to put the interests of the group ahead of the individual.
Because, he says:

Often, the best way to benefit one’s group is to displace, subjugate, or annihilate the group next door.
(…)
When human leaders have manipulated or coerced people into submerging their interests into the group’s, the outcomes are some of history’s worst atrocities.

I couldn’t agree more, and there is a foundational article here on the good of individualistic self-centeredness.
See:

Dating Is A Marketplace

At a certain point, it makes sense for people to stop dating, choose someone, and pair up.

But choosing someone because he or she was “the best we found” leaves our partner vulnerable.
Out of 6 billion people there will surely be someone who likes you even more than your partner does, and whom you will like much more than you like your partner.

So if you always go for the best you can get, rationally you would leave your partner.
That’s why people want to see from their partners’ feelings, and signs that they chose them because they really like them, and not because of a rational calculation.

Also read:

The Sexual Marketplace: Overview of Intersexual Dynamics

We Lie to Ourselves to Lie Better, But The Truth Is Still Hidden in Our Brain

To better lie and deceive others, people often believe their own lies.

However, the truth is still useful, and it should be registered somewhere in the brain.
People fool themselves to maintain a good image of self, so for example, they derogate others when they assault others.
This is cognitive dissonance, first postulated by Leon Festinger. But, says Pinker, it was Elliott Aronson, author of “The Social Animal” who truly got it right.
Cognitive dissonance only arises when people need to eliminate the dissonance between what they do and the proposition of yourself being as benevolent and effective as you’d like to think you are.

Sometimes we have a glimpse of our own self-deception when some remark really hurts.
It’s because part of us knows it’s true, but we’d prefer to keep it hidden.

For more on self-deception and self-manipulation, also read:

Manipulation: Techniques, Strategies, & Ethics

Scholars Fight A War for Status, Not For Science

Theoretically, scholars and researchers should have truth in mind.

But in practice, scholars are also known from colleagues as “the types who can be pushed around” and “the types who won’t take any shit”.
A switchblade at a scholarly conference would strike the wrong tone, but scholars fight the battle with different means, including:

  • Intimidation: “clearly”
  • Threat: “it would be unscientific to… “
  • Authority: “as Popper showed.. “
  • Insult: “this work lacks the necessary rigor for (this is actually soft power and judge role”)
  • Belittling: “few people today seriously believe that… “

Achieving Status With Dominant or Social Intelligence

Even in violent tribal groups such as Yanomano, strength is not everything some leaders earned power and authority with shrewdness.

Chagnon reports that some leaders are flamboyant bullies, but some others used shrewdness and discretion.
One man, for example, dominated thanks to a web of alliances, and conserved his authority by giving orders only when he was sure everyone would follow them.

Status Rule #1: Follow Those Above You if You’re Below, Be Different Than Those Below if You’re Above

And that’s why fashions change so quickly.
The people above always seek to differentiate themselves from those below them, while those below always try to copy them to get their same status.

And that’s the rationale behind the current trends of hipsters, dressing on purpose more like low-class individuals.
Pinker says the upper classes and the most advanced fashion trendsetter dress provocatively down to avoid being confused for the boring middle class.

Aggressive Nonconformity

Aggressive nonconformity is an advertisement that one is so powerful and confident, that he can break all the rules and jeopardize the goodwill of others.

Quotes

On futurology:

The one prediction coming out of futurology that is undoubtetly correct is that in the future, today’s futurologists, will look silly

On the irreconcilable differences between creationists and scientists:

As I marveled at the Swiss-watch precision of the joints, the sewing-machine motions by which it drew silk from its spinnerets, the beauty and cunning of the web, I thought to myself: “How could anyone see this and not believe in natural selection!?”
At that moment a woman standing next to me exclaimed “How could anyone see this and not believe in God!?”

On the randomness of stock markets:

A large industry of self-anointed sears allucinate trends in the random walk of Wall Street

About creativity and self-interest (I’m gonna quote Pinker on this one, it’s too good):

Unfortunately, creative people are at their most creative when writing their autobiographies

On moralistic science:

I think moralistic science is bad for morals, and bad for science

On genders’ differences towards adultery:

A woman has an affair because she feels that a man is in some way superior or complimentar to her husband. 
And a man has an affair because the woman is not his wife.

More Wisdom

  • Caste society have legends and myths instead of history and science so that they can justify their power position over others
  • We categorize to better infer information from reality
  • Disgust is partially learned, but we are also all predisposed to disgust and adults often find the same things disgusting. Disgust is intuitive microbiology
  • Children try to get in between parents to hog attention and avoid competition with a new child. This is what Freud misunderstood: it’s not sexual competition, it’s competition for resources
  • Children grow up influenced by their peer group far more than their parents because their peers provide far more reliable information as to which behaviors will be effective. The child’s future success and sexual access does not depend on the home environment, but on the social environment 
  • Sex is not a bonding force in human nature, but a divisive one (also see: tools of sexual conflict)
  • The Madonna/whore dichotomy is the optimal mating strategy for males of any species who invest in their offspring
  • Our taste for music and the arts are non-adaptive byproducts (this is one theory, while I tend to agree with Miller and believe they were sexually selected as fitness indicators, as it also happens in other animals)
  • Humor is a tool of social power dynamics, it can be a tool of aggression, or a tool of submissiveness to defuse tension (see Power University for the power dynamics of humor)
  • Religion is a technique for success
how the mind works book cover

Criticism

“How the Mind Works” was a wonderful read, but there are important points I need to raise:

1. Too Deterministic, Sometimes “Fooled by Randomness”

Sometimes I feel Pinker seeks to over-explain things.

The author says that evolutionary psychology shouldn’t seek to explain everything, and yet sometimes it feels that’s exactly what he does.
For example, he asks:

If consciousness is useless, if a creature without it could negotiate the world as well as a creature with it, why would natural selection have favored the conscious one

Natural selection has not favored the conscious one. 
There are countless ways of supporting life and making it thrive, consciousness simply happens not to make such a huge difference on whether one has it, or not.
Possibly, consciousness actually helps to spread genes, but natural selection has not really favored anything. It happened rather randomly.

2. The “Perfect Machine” Fallacy: The Computer Analogy & Organisms as Perfect Adaptations

Says the author:

Organisms are not just cohesive blobs of pretty spirals, they are machines.
And their complexity is functional adaptive design 

In the epilogue to later editions, the author says he was misunderstood with the “machine” analogy.
Yet, the main issue with the machine analogy is that Pinker makes it sound as organisms work like perfect clockworks.

The analogy repeats over and over, giving exactly that feeling of “perfect machinery”.
For example (italic is mine):

Animals’ brains are just as specialize and well engineered as their bodies
A brain is a precision instrument that allows a creature to use information to solve the problems presented by its lifestyle

And again:

Each animal has evolved information-processing machinery to solve its problems, and we evolved machinery to solve ours.
The sophisticated algorithm found in even the smallest found in even the tiniest dabs of nervous tissue serve as yet another eye-opener…

And more:

The real action is in the pattern of connections among neurons, just as the differences in content among different computer programs, microchips or video cassettes

And even more:

The difficulties of building organisms to cooperate and be generous have not prevented natural selection from installing cooperation and generosity in humans.
(…)
The onboard computers of social organisms, especially humans, should run sophisticated programs that assess the opportunities and risks at hand, and act accordingly

“How the Mind Works” could have as well been called “how this engineering feat works” or “how this computer” works.

Together with the mind seen as a “perfectly engineered machine”, evolution also comes to be seen as “perfect engineer designer”:

3. “The Perfect Engineer Fallacy”: Evolution As Infallible Designer

Says the author:

Natural selection does not have the foresight of engineers. But that cuts both ways. It does not have their mental blocks, impoverished imagination, or conformity to bourgeois sensibility and ruling class interests either.
Guided only by what works, selection can hone in on brilliant creative solutions. 

And then:

Ingenious contrivances of the living world, the bio-mechanical perfection of cheetahs, the infrared pinhole cameras of snakes, the sonar of bats, the superglue of barnacles (…) after all, more malevolent forces like predators and parasites are constantly gnawing at an organism’s right to life and do not forgive slapdash engineering

Again, we go with the “machine” analogy.

Reading “How the Mind Works”, I felt like it was like a hymn to evolution’s perfection.

The author even downplays the mistakes of evolution:

And many of the examples of bad design in the animal kingdom turn out to be old spouse’s tales.

It sounds like the author is saying that evolution makes no mistakes.
But it’s not really like that.
Evolution is messy, sometimes also going off maladaptive tangents.

The selfish gene, after all, doesn’t care about “perfect”.
The selfish gene is happy with “good enough to replicate”.

4. Too Natural Selection-Centric, It Forgets Sexual Selection

I find Steven Pinker, like a few more contemporary evolutionary psychology authors, to focus too much on natural selection and too little on sexual selection.

See here an example:

5. Unconvincing Explanation of Complex Adaptation Through Natural Selection

The author says that natural selection can well explain “complex adaptations”.

And I believe that’s the case.
It must be the case, what other explanations are there, anyway?

Yet, his “rational” arguments are not very rational at all.
For example, he says:

Halfway wing will not make you soar like an eagle, but it will allow you to parachute.

Yeah, halfway… But how about 1/5 of a wing? 
Or 1/10th of a wing?
That’s just useless.

I don’t believe that natural selection is the answer here.
Probably sexual selection also played a role. I like Miller’s theory of “sexual selection as the VC of evolution” (check out “The Mating Mind“).

6. Too Much Vitriol Spent Against “Feminists” & “Leftists”

Pinker has a point when he talks about some ideology-driven academics.

But sometimes he overdoes it. 
And, as well, sometimes he fails to understand that those authors too, can add a few important contributions to the discourse.

7. The Concept of “Humans As Weak” Is Wrong (& Ethnocentric)

It’s funny that, of all the people, Pinker falls for this.

He pokes fun at the countless authors who say we’re just another chimp, and he makes fun of those who say humans are weak, because today “this weak animal” controls the fate of the supposedly “stronger” animals.

And then, he falls for it himself.
He implies we are weak and that our victory is the “ultimate revenge of the geeks”.

I don’t see how anyone could see humans as weak, even without our recent surge of high tech.

That’s very ethnocentric to say. And it’s because, as Pinker also knows, we tend to focus on threats. So we focus on bigger animals, or on smaller dangerous animals.
And we forget the countless ones who are neither bigger nor dangerous to us.

But the truth is that we are some of the biggest animals on earth.
We live long and have long childhoods because we were powerful and didn’t die frequently, including during our evolution.
And we are left free to build our own weapons, even without any high-technology, we will still come out victorious against 99% of any other animals.

So this idea that “humans are weak” is really just misplaced and ultimately ethnocentric nonsense.

8. Sometimes It’s “After the Fact Storytelling”

I have the feeling the author sometimes jumps to conclusions.
For example, talking about hunting:

And men are bigger and more adept to killing because of their evolutionary history of killing each other

Based on what does the author say men are bigger because of “killing each other”, and not simply “fighting each other”, or because they were selected by women to be bigger?

No data is provided, but it’s presented as a fact.

9. Does It Misunderstand the Hamilton Rule?

I’m surprised that an intelligent man such as Pinker could misunderstand Hamilton, but it seems that’s just what happened.

Says Pinker:

Biologist William Hamilton noted, that if a benefit to the relative, multiplied by the probability that the genes is shared, exceeds the cost to the animal, that gene will spread in the population

But Hamilton’s rule doesn’t say the gene will spread.
The gene can spread.

Genes that obey Hamilton’s rule will not be rooted out by evolution, while those that do disobey Hamilton’s rule will have to against the forces of evolution.

But nothing in Hamilton’s theory says that the genes will necessarily spread, like Pinker makes it sound.
Again, this to me suggests that Pinker has a rather deterministic view of evolution, and that if something can happen because it’s good for the gene, then it will happen for sure. 

10. Chagnon and War: The Controversy

There has been much debate about Chagnon, and I’m not taking any side against Chagnon here, or against Pinker’s general conclusions.

As a matter of fact, since war is so widespread, I do believe humans do have a tendency for war and, possibly, psychological adaptations for it (albeit not a gene for war, of course).
As Pinker says:

Some people think that evolutionary psychology claims to have discovered that human nature is selfish and wicked. But they are flattering the researchers(…)
No one needs a scientist to measure whether humans are prone to knavery. The question has been answered in the history books, the newspapers, the ethnographic record, and the letters to Ann Landers.
But people treat it like an open question, as if someday science might discover that it’s all a bad dream and we will wake up to find that it is human nature to love one another.

Yep, I couldn’t agree more.

However, Pinker could have done himself a favor and not relied heavily on Chagnon and the Yanomamo.

After all, there are good arguments that seriously cast some doubts on the link between killers and sexual success (see Sapolsky, 2018 for an overview and Fry for the critical paper).

Review

Steven Pinker wanted “How the Mind Works” to be his Magnus opera.

And it is indeed a monumental work.
But that’s also his limitation, in my opinion.
Similar to “Behave” by Sapolsky, it crams in too much information from too many disparate fields.
It’s difficult to find a central theme, a thesis, or a clear message that the reader can remember.

What will one associate “How the Mind Works” with, when the topics it touches upon range from extraterrestrial life, to the evolution of art, to the utility of humor?

My Own Bias in Reviewing “How the Mind Works”

I was a bit biased towards “How the Mind Works”.
And not in a positive way.

To begin with, I wasn’t holding the author in the same high self-esteem I used to.
I find him to be too derisive towards the people and colleagues he disagrees with, including in the epilogue of this very book. He ends up sounding smug, and I don’t like that attitude.
Maybe he’s trying to follow his own theory of “scholars who won’t take any shit” a bit too hard, and he should focus a bit more on what’s true instead of who’s right.

Second, I had read and love “The Mating Mind” first, where Geoffrey Miller tears down the idea of the mind as a computer, and I knew that Pinker was accused of embracing that metaphor -albeit he says that’s not the case in the epilogue of the new version-.

Third, I had already read “The Blank Slate”, focused on demolishing the leftist and feminist “Social Science Standard Model”, and I was tired of that raging battle. 
“How the Mind Works” dedicates a whole chapter, plus lots of barbs spread throughout the book, against the feminist and leftist academics. You know, it gets tiring after a while.

Overall, it’s still a high-quality book.
And I am twice grateful because “How the Mind Works” also helped me improve my products, for example with Steven Pinker’s intelligent analysis of humor and the use of quips to win debates.

Check out the:

or get the book on Amazon.

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