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Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind Kindle Edition

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Length: 225 pages Word Wise: Enabled

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About the Author

Gary Marcus is a professor of psychology at New York University and director of the NYU Infant Language Learning Center. Marcus received his Ph.D. at age twenty-three from MIT, where he was mentored by Steven Pinker. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Newsday, the Los Angeles Times, and other major publications. He lives in New York.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Remnants of History

It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.

—Bertrand Russell

Are human beings "noble in reason" and "infinite in faculty" as William Shakespeare famously wrote? Perfect, "in God’s image," as some biblical scholars have asserted? Hardly.     If mankind were the product of some intelligent, compassionate designer, our thoughts would be rational, our logic impeccable. Our memory would be robust, our recollections reliable. Our sentences would be crisp, our words precise, our languages systematic and regular, not besodden with irregular verbs (sing-sang, ring-rang, yet bring-brought) and other peculiar inconsistencies. As the language maven Richard Lederer has noted, there would be ham in hamburger, egg in eggplant. English speakers would park in parkways and drive on driveways, and not the other way around.     At the same time, we humans are the only species smart enough to systematically plan for the future—yet dumb enough to ditch our most carefully made plans in favor of short-term gratification. ("Did I say I was on a diet? Mmm, but three-layer chocolate mousse is my favorite . . . Maybe I’ll start my diet tomorrow.") We happily drive across town to save $25 on a $100 microwave but refuse to drive the same distance to save exactly the same $25 on a $1,000 flat-screen TV. We can barely tell the difference between a valid syllogism, such as All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal, and a fallacious counterpart, such as All living things need water, roses need water, therefore roses are living things (which seems fine until you substitute car batteries for roses). If I tell you that "Every sailor loves a girl," you have no idea whether I mean one girl in particular (say, Betty Sue) or whether I’m really saying "to each his own." And don’t even get me started on eyewitness testimony, which is based on the absurd premise that we humans can accurately remember the details of a briefly witnessed accident or crime, years after the fact, when the average person is hard pressed to keep a list of a dozen words straight for half an hour.     I don’t mean to suggest that the "design" of the human mind is a total train wreck, but if I were a politician, I’m pretty sure the way I’d put it is "mistakes were made." The goal of this book is to explain what mistakes were made—and why.

Where Shakespeare imagined infinite reason, I see something else, what engineers call a "kluge." A kluge is a clumsy or inelegant—yet surprisingly effective—solution to a problem. Consider, for example, what happened in April 1970 when the CO2 filters on the already endangered lunar module of Apollo 13 began to fail. There was no way to send a replacement filter up to the crew—the space shuttle hadn’t been invented yet—and no way to bring the capsule home for several more days. Without a filter, the crew would be doomed. The mission control engineer, Ed Smylie, advised his team of the situation, and said, in effect, "Here’s what’s available on the space capsule; figure something out." Fortunately, the ground crew was able to meet the challenge, quickly cobbling together a crude filter substitute out of a plastic bag, a cardboard box, some duct tape, and a sock. The lives of the three astronauts were saved. As one of them, Jim Lovell, later recalled, "The contraption wasn’t very handsome, but it worked."     Not every kluge saves lives. Engineers sometimes devise them for sport, just to show that something—say, building a computer out of Tinkertoys— can be done, or simply because they’re too lazy to do something the right way. Others cobble together kluges out of a mixture of desperation and resourcefulness, like the TV character MacGyver, who, needing to make a quick getaway, jerry-built a pair of shoes from duct tape and rubber mats. Other kluges are created just for laughs, like Wallace and Gromit’s "launch and activate" alarm clock/coffeemaker/Murphy bed and Rube Goldberg’s "simplified pencil sharpener" (a kite attached to a string lifts a door, which allows moths to escape, culminating in the lifting of a cage, which frees a woodpecker to gnaw the wood that surrounds a pencil’s graphite core). MacGyver’s shoes and Rube Goldberg’s pencil sharpeners are nothing, though, compared to perhaps the most fantastic kluge of them all—the human mind, a quirky yet magnificent product of the entirely blind process of evolution.

The origin, and even the spelling, of the word kluge is up for grabs. Some spell it with a d (kludge), which has the virtue of looking as clumsy as the solutions it denotes, but the disadvantage of suggesting the wrong pronunciation. (Properly pronounced, kluge rhymes with huge, not sludge. One could argue that the spelling klooge (rhymes with stooge) would even better capture the pronunciation, but I’m not about to foist a third spelling upon the world.) Some trace the word to the old Scottish word cludgie, which means "an outside toilet." Most believe the origins lie in the German word Kluge, which means "clever." The Hacker’s Dictionary of Computer Jargon traces the term back at least to 1935, to a "Kluge [brand] paper feeder," described as "an adjunct to mechanical printing presses."

The Kluge feeder was designed before small, cheap electric motors and control electronics; it relied on a fiendishly complex assortment of cams, belts, and linkages to both power and synchronize all its operations from one motive driveshaft. It was accordingly temperamental, subject to frequent breakdowns, and devilishly difficult to repair—but oh, so clever!

Virtually everybody agrees that the term was first popularized in February 1962, in an article titled "How to Design a Kludge," written, tongue in cheek, by a computer pioneer named Jackson Granholm, who defined a kluge as "an ill-assorted collection of poorly matching parts, forming a distressing whole." He went on to note that "the building of a Kludge . . . is not work for amateurs. There is a certain, indefinable, masochistic finesse that must go into true Kludge building. The professional can spot it instantly. The amateur may readily presume that ‘that’s the way computers are.’"     The engineering world is filled with kluges. Consider, for example, something known as vacuum-powered windshield wipers, common in most cars until the early 1960s. Modern windshield wipers, like most gizmos on cars, are driven by electricity, but back in the olden days, cars ran on 6 volts rather than 12, barely enough power to keep the spark plugs going and certainly not enough to power luxuries like windshield wipers. So some clever engineer rigged up a kluge that powered windshield-wiper motors with suction, drawn from the engine, rather than electricity. The only problem is that the amount of suction created by the engine varies, depending on how hard the engine is working. The harder it works, the less vacuum it produces. Which meant that when you drove your 1958 Buick Riviera up a hill, or accelerated hard, your wipers slowed to a crawl, or even stopped working altogether. On a rainy day in the mountains, Grandpa was out of luck.     What’s really amazing—in hindsight—is that most people probably didn’t even realize it was possible to do better. And this, I think, is a great metaphor for our everyday acceptance of the idiosyncrasies of the human mind. The mind is inarguably impressive, a lot better than any available alternative. But it’s still flawed, often in ways we scarcely recognize. For the most part, we simply accept our faults —such as our emotional outbursts, our mediocre memories, and our vulnerability to prejudice—as standard equipment. Which is exactly why recognizing a kluge, and how it might be improved upon, sometimes requires thinking outside the box. The best science, like the best engineering, often comes from understanding not just how things are, but how else they could have been.

Product Details

  • File Size: 573 KB
  • Print Length: 225 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0618879641
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (April 7, 2009)
  • Publication Date: April 7, 2009
  • Sold by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B003JTHWQ4
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Word Wise: Enabled
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  • Enhanced Typesetting: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #473,096 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Simon Laub on August 30, 2009
Format: Paperback
The human mind is capable of the most astonishing
feats. But our cognitive makeup is also filled with what Gary Marcus
calls bugs.
Inadequate self control, false memories, absentmindedness,
vulnerability to mental disorders, mental contamination and much more.
Why? Because that was as good as nature (evolution) could make the brain.

Evolution, Natural selection is only as good as the random mutation
that may arise. If a given mutation is beneficial it may propagate,
but the most beneficial mutation might never appear.
Sure, there are all sort of examples of how nature eventually
achieved perfection. But sometimes nature settles with imperfection.
Stuck in a 'local maximum" where there might be better
solutions around. But nature just don't know how to get there
without destroying the organism.

We have two ways of thinking - a fast, automatic and unconscious way,
and then a slow, deliberate and judicious.
Where deliberate prefrontal thought is piled on top of fast, automatic
emotional feelings in the brain.
And thats were all the trouble starts.

Now, the reader really would need some brain anatomy drawings.
Where do we have the fast stuff (Limbic system), where is
the rational stuff (frontal cortex), and why does the
limbic system override the cortex (wired that way).
But the book is very vague here - and assumes
that we are only interested in this from a
overview psychological point of view - not the nitty gritty
of what is actual going on in the brain?
I was pretty disappointed here, because I thought I was
going to be told more on how the actual wiring is,
and how it could be changed!
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Adam D. Shomsky on April 25, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Kluge a decent book with some interesting points, but overall I didn't think it offered any ground-breaking insights and was not particularly rigorously supported. I don't deny Marcus' main premise, that the brain is an imperfect kluge pieced together by natural selection and many of the traits we have do not promote happiness and wellbeing. But I think he underestimates the adaptive value (at least in a Darwinian sense) of some of the aspects of our brains. It's easy to overlook some subtle advantage of a trait and conclude it has no adaptive value. Gerd Gigerenzer's Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, for instance, convincingly argues that many apparent reasoning errors are actually "highly intelligent social judgments" which are helpful overall in the real world (as opposed to a contrived logic puzzle, for instance).

It's easy to propose an alternative design for some aspect of the human mind without any real way to test if humans would indeed be better off with it. For instance, Marcus says "in a system that was superlatively well engineered, belief and the process of drawing inferences (which soon become new beliefs) would be separate, with an iron wall between them." But it's not clear to me that this is the best system. Each time we see a bird flying, should we conclude gravity doesn't exist since we're drawing inferences without regard for pre-existing beliefs? Sometimes observations seem to contradict well-founded beliefs and resistance to changing those beliefs is not necessarily irrational or counterproductive (although sometimes it is). Are we better off in the end with some other system?
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As someone who's fairly well-read but not (as several other reviewers of this book) well-versed in the specialty of evolutionary biology, I found this book to be engaging, clear, and thought-provoking. I'd recommend this particularly to those interested in philosophy, psychology, computer programming, and the scientific method. What's most remarkable about this book is that although it delves deeply into many counter-intuitive qualities of human nature, it's utterly readable outside of an academic setting and offers practical advice on understanding of human failure and conflict.

Marcus' basic premise, that the human mind is highly flawed from an "engineering" standpoint, is highly compelling (to be accurate- this premise is based on the research of evolutionary biologists and does not necessarily reflect any originality on Marcus' part). In chapters on Memory, Belief, Choice, Language, and Pleasure, the author attributes many of the foibles of human nature to deficiencies in the human mind based on the fact that culture, deliberate reasoning, and long-term planning (vs. reacting in the moment) did not offer survival advantages over the course of the human being's adaptive evolution. Just a few examples of potential weaknesses described include: 1) a contextual (vs. "postal code") memory resulting in an average of 55 minutes per day looking for things we know we own but can't find; 2) an inflated craving for sugar, fat, salt, and sex based on evolutionary scarcity; 3) a tendency to believe things that fit in with our pre-existing beliefs (i.e., confirmation bias); and 4) a tendency to respond to anecdotes vs. data.
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