17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on April 5, 2009
This is a curious little book about a simple but interesting topic that, despite including some very worthwhile ideas, is somewhat tarnished by two nagging issues that run the length of the book. The first of which could be dubbed engineer's disorder - the constant criticisms of existing designs with less regard for how they came to be, why they came to be the way that they did, and too much emphasis on the fact that evolution has not left us with the type of task-specific perfection we would expect from a machine. And the second is a tendency that seems to get more noticeable as the book progresses, which is to repeatedly fall back onto a familiar commentary about a particular aspect of human nature and simply state that the reason this particular shortcoming exists is because of the kluged nature of our design. Which may in fact be the case, and often times it probably is the case. But more explanation and less commentary would be effective.
The premise for the book is a sound one -- that the human brain being a product of evolution is a series of systems, built upon existing systems, which were themselves built on existing systems, all of which were "designed" for life in earlier and simpler times. The result of this constrains the abilities and limits the potential of what evolution has left us with - a pastiche of cumbersome and perhaps even clumsy designs that manage to work is spite of their lack of eloquence. The first chapter does a good job of being both entertaining and enlightening as it explains this idea in detail and provides a few interesting examples, such as the fact that our optic nerve has to send visual input all the way to the back of the brain and flip it 180 degrees where it can be processed into sight, as opposed to putting the visual processing in the frontal part of the brain, just behind the eyes. Regrettably, after the first chapter, as the author begins looking at different aspects of our cognitive functions, such as memory, belief, language, and pleasure, the book gets away from the interesting idea of kluges, and specific examples of kluges and merely references kluges as the probable cause for whatever the current topic happens to be. Again, this may in fact be the case, but the tendency to lean towards commentary and away from explanation detracts from the book's value.
Admittedly, there are some ideas worthy of the reader's attention, particularly the theory that our system of cognition is based on two primary processing circuits (for want of a better term), one reflexive, and one deliberative. One of these two, the deliberative, is newer, but rides on the existing framework laid down by millions of years of evolution, and therefore leaves us with a sense of reason and deliberation that is both behind and somewhat subservient to our sense of impulse and reflex. Also there are numerous cognitive studies from psychology offered for support that are interesting enough in their own right. And while too much time does ultimately get spent complaining about evolution's supposed shortcomings, the author is correct to point out early on that natural selection can only select from the choices it has been given, therefore "better" possibilities never get considered - "chance proposes and nature disposes." The author is also correct when he points out that evolution, much like a production system, does not and cannot stop, which might, and probably does, explain many of nature's design selections.
Ultimately the greatest problem in the book is the fact that every time an aspect of our cognitive development is deemed inefficient it gets compared to something created by a world full of kluged individuals. Human memory would be so much better if it were not contextually based but rather based on a type of "postal-code" addressing system which would allow us to recall specific memories in a manor similar to searching on Google. Our processing of sound should be like an iPod with a central unit capable of reproducing any sound rather than using muscles in our throats that twist and contort in thousands of combination allowing us to mold sounds into words, but also increases our chance of choking. In these cases, and others, the models of perfection and excellence (Google, iPods, and even Postal Codes) were built by and for a world of kluge-ridden people. It is difficult at this point to not make the observation that beings such as ourselves, irregardless of our poor design, are capable of creating these tools when needed or desired. Even if it were possible to machine perfection, or at least efficiency, into people they would still make changes to their surroundings that would change the world in which they live. And this would leave them in a state identical to the one the author defines in the first chapter - One where the inhabitants of the world struggle to adapt to that world with the tools left to them for the purpose of existence in a previous generation.
Credit where due, this book still manages to be thought provoking and, at times, engaging. The ideas presented are worth pondering and make for great conversation material. The book is short, with the body of text barely passing 175 relatively small pages. So for those who may consider the book a waste of time, at least it is not very much. Three stars - enjoy.
44 of 54 people found the following review helpful
on June 1, 2008
When I was learning the basics of journalism, I found out that (a) every article must have a "hook," that gets the reader interested in the article; and (b) the best hook is to maintain that something that is obviously false, or is widely disbelieved, is in fact true. Marcus has apparently learned these lessons. He has many interesting things to tell us about the human mind, but his argument that the human mind is a "clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem" (the definition of a kluge) is just not the case.
Of course, it has been fashionable since Stephen J. Gould's brilliant critique of creationism to maintain that evolution produces acceptable but not optimal solutions. Gould's examples, though, are extremely plausible and based on the existence of better solutions to problems in one organism as opposed to another (e.g., the octopus eye does not have a blind spot). Marcus argues that the human brain is a kluge, but his argument that the computer is a better brain is just too silly to contemplate, even if we limit mental activity to memory.
One of the truly infuriating things about this book is Marcus' willingness to quote facts without regard to their validity or plausibility, and to render judgments without considering alternative hypotheses. For instance, on p. 19 he reports "A recent Newsweek article claims that people typically spend 55 minutes a day `looking for things they know they own but can't find.'" I don't believe this for a second. Show me the study from which this statistic derives. It may exist, but I heartily doubt it. I don't spend 55 minutes a year looking for things I have lost, and I am just a normal guy.
Marcus' argument that computer memory is better than human memory is not convincing, and the reason he gives for this is just wrong. He says that computer memory is based on a "postal address" system in which each piece of information occupies a fixed location in memory. This is just not true. Computer memory is mapped and remapped frequently, with address changes each time. Moreover, it is likely that human memory has exactly the same property. Indeed, it is a major challenge to find information in computer memory, just as it is in human memory. Google became a household word because it provides mechanisms for accessing computer memory.
Marcus would have done better to ask what human memory is supposed to do, and then discussed how efficient the actual solution is. For instance, it is costly to store information, so the brain ignores many signals altogether, and moves only a fraction of short term memory into long-term memory. It would be extremely inefficient if this worked perfectly, because in fact optimality requires a balance between the costs of storage, the costs of discrimination, and the costs of lacking specific pieces of information. The fact that we lose our car keys once in a while is not an indication of a kluge.
This is not to say that human memory is optimal. For instance, we tend to be overconfident concerning our memory of past events. This may serve some psychodynamic purpose, but it may just be a mental defect the correction of which does not have much fitness value, and hence has not occurred.
In dealing with "belief," Marcus takes it as obvious that the ideal type of belief is scientific, based on logic and the laws of evidence. Human believe all sorts of stuff that violate the canons of science, and why they do is an interesting evolutionary question. However, it is not a kluge---it is inconceivable that this aspect of the human mind is not an adaptation. Even scientists believe in things that they have not proved, and it is likely that the capacity to believe is a major creative force in science.
Marcus' treatment of human choice is a recap of the work of Kahneman, Tversky, et al. If you have not seen this material, Marcus is a good place to start. He does a fine job of summarizing this important body of work. However, I do not believe this evidence supports his position that human choice is basically irrational. For an extended critique of the irrationality of human decision-making, see my paper, Herbert Gintis, "A Framework for the Unification of the Behavioral Sciences", Behavioral and Brain Sciences 30,1 (2007):1-61.
Marcus' contribution is one of many recent popular contributions to cognitive psychology that basically take the form "Humans are irrational, but if we know the common pitfalls of the mind, we can vastly improve our capacity to make good decisions." As such Marcus' book is really a self-help manual, and indeed, in the final chapter "True Wisdom," he gives us such wise blandishments as "Try to Be Rational" and "Always Weigh the Benefits Against the Costs." Thanks, Gary. I'll think I'll try these on for size.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on July 17, 2008
The author begins with the proposition that a lot of things in nature - including systems in living organisms, even mankind - seems as if they have been cobbled together in haphazard fashion. The idea of intelligent design will not survive a close reading of this book. The great Portuguese king, Alfonso the Wise, once confided to his companions (perhaps while swatting a mosquito) that, if he had been present at the creation, he might have offered a few useful suggestions to the creator.
Marcus is a little more specific. He doesn't offer suggestions but he points out odd lapses in how things like eyes and minds work and how brains do what they do and suggests that there's a lot of "stuff" floating around in how we are put together that is pure artifact. It's there because it's there and it isn't the most efficient or best or even most plausible approach to the evolutionary problem we think it was meant to address.
Marcus is a smart and witty writer but I suggest keeping a salt shaker handy. Science is constantly discovering that things it thought were meaningless or actual problems have some real value. Diseases that we inherit turn out to be protective against much more serious diseases that we could catch. "Useless" organs or systems turn out to have subtle life-protective functions. Too often we see something that we don't understand and label it a mistake instead of a signpost of our own limits of perception.
I think that existence in nature exposes an organism to a tremendously powerful sculpting process and that what survives ought to be presumed to have survival value and function, even if we haven't discovered it yet.
Marcus propounds his very different thesis - that there's a lot in what we are that seems senseless and incomprehensible, if not actually non-functional - and then seems to run out of steam.
The best part of the book, the tests of the validity of his hypothesis and the implications if it is true, remain unarticulated. Marcus is a university professor. From the feel of this book, he is probably a good one. Yet, if he got something like this as a student paper, he would probably guess that it was a first draft and return it for revision with some very pointed and helpful comments.
I enjoyed this book until about halfway through when it seemed to get lost. Worth reading as a humbling exercise, but not clear whether the proper humbling is from realizing that we are highly imperfect and contingent creatures or from realizing that we understand a lot less about what we are and how we are put together than we would like to believe.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
This book is a welcome corrective to the growing body of work on the brain and consciousness. Books like Dennett's "Consciousness Explained" do everything but explain consciousness. Scientists have developed a deep and detailed explanation of how the brain works mechanical, of which neurons fire in what parts of the brain depending on the stimuli of different senses, but they seem to be moving further and further away from any knowledge of just what thought is, self-consciousness, why we have it.
Marcus' book doesn't answer this question, but it does nudge the path off its deterministic train wreck. The problem with the mechanical solutions is that they inevitably become anthropic, describing the brain as working perfectly the way it does, without describing why it works that way at all! The scientific, as well as they economic, view of human behavior and decisions as the results of perfectly clear and logical mechanisms is a fiction to anyone who actually looks at how people think and act. We're a mess, and a wonderful one! Marcus makes that point, that the brain that drives us is a marvelous mess, haphazard rather than designed, but somehow accomplished enough that we can look at ourselves and try and figure out how is it that we can even think, and write books. While this path to understanding consciousness is still unexplored, thanks to Marcus for offering a welcome and intuitive contrary view. A worthwhile read for anyone interested in the mind.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 28, 2009
This covers much of the same ground as Shermer's "The Mind of the Market".
It's surprising to find that Kluge can be seen as a discourse on neuro-economics, since it deals largely with the processes of decision-making. It also deals with memory and perception, which are not as integral to economic decisions.
Marcus also does a generally poor job of citing sources. In this regard, Shermer's book is much better.
I was also discouraged to see Marcus get the "Prisoner's Delimma" exactly wrong (p. 88).
All told, this strikes me as a book dashed out in a hurry. It gives a fairly good overview of some recent cognative science, but it's not nearly as illuminating as books by Pinker or Shermer.
19 of 28 people found the following review helpful
This book is its own best argument for the haphazard, meandering quality of the human brain and the human thinking process.
The book itself has some strong points and raises some issues that appear to be somewhat profound, but in the end, from this reviewer's perspective it vastly overreaches the evidence presented and attempts to draw conclusions in an authoritative manner that are a huge stretch. Up front, the author jumps to the material of Richard Dawkins and other popular books in the realm of atheism in an apparent effort to piggy back upon or appropriate some of the controversy or success perhaps of these works, to make comments in the realm of this populist field. While I don't agree with the author's position in that regard, that is not the basis of my evaluation of his book.
Strong general appeals are made within the book to logic and the idea that if there were a teleological goal in the creation of man and the human mind, according to the author, it would be expected that such a purposeful design should have rendered a better result. In particular, the human mind is contrasted to the human invention of the computer, which the author holds up as a more efficient and effective method of memory recall. Think about that. The human mind in effect invented and refined the computer to a specialized purpose, which of course is going to handle the tasks it is created to do more efficiently than the human mind, otherwise there would be no purpose in creating it. It begs the question by analogy that if because simple physical tools such as the lever improve the function of the human arm, that that means the human arm is deficient in whole because it doesn't measure up to the specialized application in this regard.
With these types of elements interspersed throughout the book, this reader found it to have a quality of an entertaining professor giving a lecture who perhaps would be popular with students because of his style and idiosyncracies, but at the end of the lecture would leave the hall feeling entertained but somehow wondering what the substance was. It meanders, repeats some of the stretches of logic as if repeating them somehow makes them more true and seems geared to try to make a point outside of the field it purports to be examining.
All in all, I think an objective reader will glean a few nuggets and interesting facts, but the experience of this book will leave them a little flat. There is just too little presented to justify some of the reaches attempted.
Our thinking can be divided into two types. The first is instantaneous, automatic, and reflexive in nature. The second is more reasoned, and more analytical.
Evolution evolved from the first type of thinking to the second type of thinking. The exasperating interplay between these two types of thinking is the basis for Marcus' examination of kluges (a clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem.)
He reviews memory, belief, choice, language, pleasure, and mental illnesses by discussing kluges relevant to each topic. More specifically, he does so by showing how the two types of thinking play their role in the formation and/or perpetuation of these kluges.
He concludes with a self-help chapter on how to avoid kluges ("True Wisdom") which in my mind demeans the remainder of the book. Others may like it, however.
(In this final chapter, however, Marcus does make an excellent point concerning education: metacognitive thinking ("knowing about knowing") should be taught in our schools.)
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on October 18, 2009
i'll keep this real simple. There is some great stuff in this book. unfortunately, the author strays from his area of expertise. It is full of clumsy evolutionary arguments and clumsy political ones that he just couldn't help but mention. These, and the pages wasted on superfluous examples will quickly wear on the more scientifically minded reader. It's not worth your money, but check it out from the library and skim it in 3-6 hours.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
The subtitle of this book is slightly misleading, and paves the way for a tired, repetitious thesis: That the human mind is inferior to some ideal (for instance, our computers are less reliable than computer memory) because of the random processes involved in evolution. Marcus is not wrong, but the claim that our brains are imperfect isn't interesting in itself. Nor do I expect this argument to make many converts among the intelligent design crowd.
Instead, the book is enjoyable when it goes into the details, listing off study after study on the often surprising ways in which we fail to think or act the way we know we should. I didn't find the self-help section at the end to be useful; fortunately, it's a small part of a quick and enjoyable read. You might also enjoy Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational, Sunstein and Thaler's Nudge, and, my personal favorite of this genre, Tim Harford's The Logic of Life.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Kluge is interesting enough to read. I was attracted to it because of the notion of the kludge. In IT, klumsy, lame, ugly, dumb, but good enough is part of everyday business. I have never seen it spelled "kluge" before, by the way. And I've always heard it pronounced as though it rhymes with "fudge". So unfortunately I started off choking on the unfamiliar spelling/pronunciation that Marcus uses. (This is a minor point, and Dr. Google suggests that he's got the right of it. But it did distract me, I confess.)
As far as the main point of his book-- I bought it well enough. The idea that the brain works in ways that may not be obvious if you try to consider the ideal mechanism is fair enough, and he substantiates that. Some of the self-help tips that he derives from those observations actually seem genuinely useful. (I've considered the advice not to make important decisions when occupied with other thoughts many times since I finished the book.)
I was less enchanted with his secondary point-- that these observations on how the brain works represent the evolutionary kluge in action. It seems that the primary purposes of this assertion are: 1) Provide a kind of red thread on which the book can be hung and 2) a free sideways swipe at Intelligent Design theory. While I always enjoy a good poke at ID, I don't quite buy his points. And I actually think that Marcus weakens his own book by using this device, since I found myself mentally arguing with his assessment of solution elegance.
As I said, an interesting enough book. I would not necessarily recommend someone rush out and buy it right away. It is reasonably short and clear enough to be read by the general reader. This might be just the thing for someone who would like something a little more useful than Tom Clancy to take on an airplane trip.