By Chet Yarbrough
By Steven Pinker
Narrated by Mel Foster
“How the Mind Works” delves into the process of thought; i.e. how it is tied to an evolutionary process and how it is common to all humans but emotively different in males and females.
Steven Pinker has been reviewed in this blog before. He wrote “The Blank Slate” and “The Better Angels of our Nature” which are equally enlightening, seriously provocative, and arguably right and wrong.
The human mind works like a computer but has capacity for thought that is greater than the mechanical or probabilistic process initiated by computer theoreticians like Alan Turing and John von Neumann. Pinker believes man’s evolutionary process is nearly complete. He infers computers have achieved or will achieve a thought process that surpasses the capacity of individual human beings but a computer’s way of thinking is principally probabilistic; in contrast, human minds “ways of thinking” are multi-functionally evolved. Pinker sees the mind as a computational construct made up of thought modules that process information in both probabilistic and intuitive ways, based on human evolution.
Pinker cites Darwin’s theory of adaptive human evolution; i.e. Pinker believes that a “human computational thinking process” evolves based on nature’s instinct for survival. This thinking process is a part of the genetic make-up of human beings, passed on through generations of humanity. Humans have the capacity for learning and understanding language as a result of a genetic inheritance; e.g. every human being has a language module that exhibits soon after birth. A multitude of “thinking process” modules have been genetically created as humans have evolved. These modules include categories of behavior like human instinct, ethics, and cultural thought. However, the modules are not immutable; i.e. they can change based on changing cultural influences that can either be right or wrong or both right and wrong. Pinker particularly refers to the history of ethics and how they have changed as civilization has evolved.
An irony of the comparison of computer and human thinking and the growing probabilistic dominance of computers is that the human’ mind resists probabilistic reasoning. The inference is that computers can improve the decision-making process because they are programmed to ”think” probabilistically. Humans live in a probabilistic world but resist using their minds to think in probabilistic terms. The present state of computer thinking has no instinct equivalents like that forged in humans by adaptive behavior through generations of evolution. Pinker refers to Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking Fast and Slow”. An example of instinct is a fireman’s sense of floor collapse in a fire that is not based on a mind’s probabilistic calculation but on a “how the mind works” module, genetically heritable from an evolved and adaptive instinct for survival.
Pinker goes on to suggest that evolution has created different mind modules for men and women. Pinker notes that an instinct for survival is common to sexes but sexual attraction, the process of choice for mates, and the evolution of psycho-social experience have different mind-work’ consequences for females than for males. Pinker also notes that when women bear children, there are inherent mind module differences (ways of thinking) between men and women which are evidenced by the way fathers and mothers relate to their offspring.
Pinker cites the instinctual difference between men and women in the way they court each other, the way they view children, and the way each reacts to sexual relations with different partners. Pinker relies on sociological studies and paradigmatic arguments based on his and other “experts” opinions about evolutionary psychology. The differences in behavior (the way male and female minds work) are detailed in Pinker’s book and offer some interesting and speculative conclusions.
In completing Pinker’s book, it seems that some mind modules are inherited and others are learned. What seems puzzling is why Pinker suggests that the evolution of man and the way the mind works is near an end rather than a beginning or mid-point. Humankind has gotten this far through adaptive evolution, why will adaptation not continue to evolve? With a changing environment, it seems logical to believe that the human species will either adapt or parish, and knowing which will happen, is probabilistically unknowable. Are we headed for dystopia and extinction, utopia and eternal life, or happiness and a fulfilled life?