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Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind Hardcover – March 18, 2008

3.9 out of 5 stars 89 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Why are we subject to irrational beliefs, inaccurate memories, even war? We can thank evolution, Marcus says, which can only tinker with structures that already exist, rather than create new ones: Natural selection... tends to favor genes that have immediate advantages rather than long-term value. Marcus (The Birth of the Mind), director of NYU's Infant Language Learning Center, refers to this as kluge, a term engineers use to refer to a clumsily designed solution to a problem. Thus, memory developed in our prehominid ancestry to respond with immediacy, rather than accuracy; one result is erroneous eyewitness testimony in courtrooms. In describing the results of studies of human perception, cognition and beliefs, Marcus encapsulates how the mind is contaminated by emotions, moods, desires, goals, and simple self-interest.... The mind's fragility, he says, is demonstrated by mental illness, which seems to have no adaptive purpose. In a concluding chapter, Marcus offers a baker's dozen of suggestions for getting around the brain's flaws and achieving true wisdom. While some are self-evident, others could be helpful, such as Whenever possible, consider alternate hypotheses and Don't just set goals. Make contingency plans. Using evolutionary psychology, Marcus educates the reader about mental flaws in a succinct, often enjoyable way. (Apr. 16)
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From Booklist

A university psychology professor who periodically writes for mass media, Marcus here punctures the high regard humanity has for its species-distinctive qualities. Whether it’s memory, rationality, language, or free will, our noble human traits are hopelessly entangled with our baser drives, which have survived the dynamics of evolution. Blending discussion of experiments from cognitive psychology with speculation about why people are far less logical than they believe, Marcus latches onto the term kluge, which comes from the engineering world and is jargon for a fix that ain’t perfect but good enough. It’s a productive figure of speech for Marcus’ argument that deliberative thinking probably had an evolutionary advantage (save seeds to plant next season), but seems in permanent conflict with reflexive impulses having more ancient evolutionary advantage (eat seeds now). Carrying the point across a gamut of behaviors, from money to mental illnesses to talking, Marcus develops his idea of the klugelike mind, in which emotion perpetually besieges the intellect, with appealing clarity. --Gilbert Taylor

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Co; 1 edition (April 16, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618879641
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618879649
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.8 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (89 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #113,381 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Erik Olson VINE VOICE on February 21, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
We'd all like to believe that we're rational and clear-headed, and that our mind, will, and emotions are reliable (except, perhaps, when it comes to romance and chocolate). However, "Kluge" indicates that our Rube Goldberg brain often doesn't work quite as optimally as we believe it does. Thankfully, Gary Marcus' mind functioned well enough to bring us this fine book.

Reading about the brain is probably the ultimate act of navel-gazing, since it's the seat of who we are, and its function determines a large part of our destiny. I was glad to see a well-done and accessible analysis of our most important organ. I found the author's breakdown of the mind enlightening, like with the relationship between memory and context. Why can't I find my clipboard? Because I put it in an unfamiliar place - duh. He also compares our faulty context-dependent memory to the more accurate and systematic way a computer accesses information. Bottom line, we come up short in the total recall department.

Mr. Marcus is firmly in the evolutionary camp, so creationists may take issue with "Kluge." Mr. Marcus believes that a patchwork brain like ours couldn't be the product of a rational, superior creator. Instead, evolution fashioned our brain based on what worked for humanity's genetic propagation, not to imitate what is perfect or holy. "Good enough for survival" was evolution's mantra, as opposed to forming an "image of God," as most creationists advocate. But the author isn't demeaning towards believers, so persons of faith can at least take comfort in that.

As the whole the book was eye-opening, with chapters on concrete themes ("Memory") and more abstract topics ("True Wisdom" - yes, there's a little cognitive self-help advice).
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In "Kluge," psychologist Gary Marcus looks to the many and varied foibles, inconsistencies, and inaccuracies of the human mind and concludes that our brains are not, in fact, models of brilliance and efficiency, but are rather cobbled-together systems, designed for one purpose and pressed into action for another - the classic definition of a kluge.

The most famous kluge is probably the case of the carbon scrubbers on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. Crunched for time, engineers managed to create a system out of duct tape and socks (seriously) that worked adequately enough to clean the air on the space module- even though none of the materials they used were designed for, or optimal for, the job at hand. The result was ugly and inefficient - but it kept the astronauts alive. Likewise, Marcus argues, evolution has endowed humans with a hodgepodge of genetic material - the DNA equivalent of duct tape - with which to build all the sophisticated systems that supposedly set us apart from other creatures, like language, memory, and reason. The result is, for example in the case of language, "a vocal apparatus more byzantine than a bagpipe made up entirely of pipe cleaners and cardboard dowels."

It's delightful metaphors like this that make "Kluge" such an entertaining read. Marcus is a talented writer as well as an insightful psychologist, and what emerges from his theory is both fascinating and well-argued. In each chapter, he looks at one aspect of the human mind whose fallacies he traces to the kluge effect. Our tendency to make irrational choices, for instance, isn't necessarily the case of a single, poorly designed system. Rather, it's caused by two separate systems in conflict - our older, more primitive hindbrain, and our evolutionarily newer, deliberate forebrain.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Marcus has written an enormously entertaining and thought-provoking work. It is thoroughly grounded in research and a century's worth of thoughts and research about the human mind, and yet it is completely accessible and conversational in tone.

In just the first chapter he manages to refer to Shakespeare, Wallace & Gromit, MacGyver, the research of Daly and Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Bayesian theory and Aristotle. How can you not love a book that manages to get Homer, Tom Lehrer and They Might Be Giants into one sentence?

Marcus's approach is relaxed but methodical. He argues that the human mind is a kluge-- a jury-rigged whacked-together piece of work that owes more to building on what was already evolutionary present then a well-designed stab at reaching a clear-cut end (the book is a back-door argument against intelligent design, implying that if we were intelligently designed, we would not have ended up with the mess we have).

From memory, a variable mess of gaps and fabrication, we move on to belief and other mental processes that depend upon this hazy kluged-up foundation (choice, language and pleasure). Having shot holes in the idea of the brain as a marvelous machine of reason, Marcus warns of the dangers when the kluge falls apart, but thankfully does not end there, instead offering a solid list of ways to keep ourselves on a clear mental track.

Some of this work will seem familiar to those who have read "Stumbling Toward Happiness," but this is in many ways a perkier and more positive book. First, Marcus throws so many illustrations and examples at the reader that the ideas are clear and easy to understand (also leaving the reader well-armed for those dinner-party discussions about the book). At the same time, he maintains a positive tone.
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