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Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind Hardcover – March 18, 2008
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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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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
Top customer reviews
It's not a bad read, it sounds bad saying it that way but it's true. That's mostly due to the fact that I personally do not read non-fiction books. I always read purely fiction works. So for me to even finish it without a struggle is, in my opinion, a notable accomplishment on the books part(hah!)
The most powerful idea presented is the notion that evolution does not have foresight in considering our happiness, comfort, joy, or overall health per se. Instead, it does not care. It cares about pass on genes, and to the extend of whatever works immediately is fine.
Things like addiction, seem to be a horrible disease and why should it be advantageous? Or how about obesity? Why do we spend over $85 billion dollars on chronic back pain as a nation? Weren't our spines suppose to be able to handle our weight?
This book is interesting in adding on to someone's understanding of the world. At least it makes you think a bit.
I have two criticism of the book. One is that Marcus presumes to be a pioneer, displaying the maddening habit of naming mental processes as through he were the first to study them. While it's interesting to describe newer human mental faculties as "deliberative" and their older precursors as "reflexive," it seems presumptuous for a scientist of Marcus's caliber to be labeling these processes as though for the first time. The other criticism is a standard one in psychology, in which fascinating studies leading to seemingly surprising and shocking results are cited as though their conclusions were unambiguous and irrefutable. I, for instance, do not buy the study that claimed that Peter Jennings smiled more during stories about Ronald Reagan than in stories about Michael Dukakis. Jennings called the study's author a "jackass" and I do as well.
About 1/4 of the way through "Kluge," I put the book down for several weeks out of pique over these shortcomings. But I did eventually pick it up again, if only to clear one of the Vine spaces it was taking up. I was fairly glad I did. Swallowing a grain of salt regarding the "spectacular" finds of psychology, and insulating myself with tolerance for the author's ego, I found much food for thought in the volume. By illuminating quirks in human thinking, Marcus made his point about the shoddy construction of the human mind, thereby establishing it as another a jerry-rigged product of evolution. Take the story of the person who sinks $100 into one "okay" ski weekend and $50 into another ski weekends they know they'll enjoy more. This person then discovers that the tickets are for the same weekend, and must chose between them. It's easy to sympathize with the person who illogically chooses the higher-priced weekend, even though they'll get more pleasure from the cheaper trip, in an effort to recoup the "sunk cost" of the more expensive trip. "Kluge" offers more examples of this type (though it could have used many more) in order to make its points.
Somewhere, there is a fantastic book, chock-full of examples and experiments, that helps the non-scientist understand the quirks of the human mind and how these are consistent with a brain shaped by natural selection. In the meanwhile, "Kluge" will have to do. But I do appreciate Marcus's attempt. If nothing else, he has made me perpetually skeptical of those who attempt to explain seeming failings of the human mind (like it's inability to find lost car keys and last year's taxes) as being somehow optimal in design. It's one thing to demonstrate that a peripheral human attribute, like hip design, might be shaped by natural selection. But to show, with some success, that the human mind is liable to the same evolutionary pressures is courageous and laudable.
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