altKluge:  The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind, by Gary Marcus (Mariner Books, 2008)

After reading Kluge, which only made my reading list because the author's Guitar Zero was unavailable, I'm all the more anxious to read the book that so impressed my daughter, because I found this one decidedly unimpressive.

I'll admit my prejudice up front:  Unless I've chosen a book for it's religious content, I don't like books that wear their faith ostentatiously.  Example:  A robust and glorious Christian faith shines better through every corner of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, without any direct mention of God, than the in-your-face faith of much of the "contemporary Christian fiction" genre.  Kluge makes this error loudly and heavily, and if it hadn't been for Janet's enthusiasm for Guitar Zero, I might have given up on Kluge.  To be honest, though, I have a terrible time dropping a book even if I've determined it isn't worth my time, on the thought that despite all appearances, the book just might get better.  And I'm glad I stuck with Kluge.

It's best, I think, to think of it as two parallel books.  One is Marcus's attempts to explain the quirks, foibles, imperfections, and out-and-out breakdowns of human mental systems, as failures of evolution.  Simply put, evolutionary processes, although able to produce remarkably functional, successful, and even beautiful organisms, usually stop short of the best.  With evolution, "good enough is better than perfect," and if a system works well enough to give a reproductive advantage, eons of selection are not likely to be unravelled even if a future organism would do better with a fresh start.  Thus as life evolves, new systems are layered on old ones, and the layers do not always interact in the most efficient manner.  The human brain is a "kluge," cobbled together from from parts as old as life and as recent as yesterday, and in human behavior, the rational, thinking part of the brain is often overruled by more primitive reactions.  I'm not doing justice to his thesis, but that's the gist.  This is the book I thought I was going to be reading, and like Made to Stick, is a good look at why we're not as rational as we think, how this weakness can be used by others to our detriment, and what we can do to mitigate the situation.

The second "book" is a fascinating view into the mind of a materialist.  I don't mean "materialist" in the sense of "consumerist," one who is driven by material desires, but one whose world-view is materialism ("a theory that physical matter is the only or fundamental reality and that all being and processes and phenomena can be explained as manifestations or results of matter").  This is the in-your-face religion that I object to, and it begins in the second paragraph of the first page:

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....

And in the penultimate chapter:

It seems safe to say that no intelligent and compassionate designer would have built the human mind to be quite as vulnerable as it is.  Our mental fragility provides yet another reason to doubt that we are the product of deliberate design rather than chance and evolution.

This theme is repeated ad nauseam throughout the book:  If I were creating the world, I would have done X; since what I observe is Y, then there is no design and no designer (with or without evolution as part of the process).  Naturally, I rattled off several alternatives to his "my way or no way" argument with almost no thought at all.  (The world was created by a designer whose idea of the best design is different from his; the design was initially perfect but was later marred by other forces; there is/was a designer, but one who is not compassionate; it shouldn't be hard to come up with others.)

As put off as I initially was, this is actually as interesting as the other part of the book.  It was fascinating to see the world through the mind of one for whom evolution is not merely a mechanism, but a religion.  In many ways, Kluge is a remarkable attempt to make evolution answer the question that all religions and philosophies must wrestle with:  sin.  Of course Marcus does not call sin by that name, but that's what he's dealing with nonetheless.

To be human is to fight a lifelong uphill battle for self-control.  Why?  Because evolution left us clever enough to set reasonable goals but without the willpower to see them through.

In fact, Marcus deals with many of the great questions of mankind, and I find that commendable, even if some of his attempts to force answers out of evolution seem to me as stretched as the ancients' adding sphere upon sphere and complication upon complication in order to account for the motions of the heavenly bodies without considering that the earth might revolve around the sun.  Marcus wants a consistent, definitively explainable system—a desire as old as Job.

As interesting as his theories are, I don't like Marcus's ideal world.  He's much too enamored of computers, and repeatedly asserts that our minds are obviously defective because they don't work the way he would design them—like computers.  I like that our language is sometimes ambiguous, irregular, and unsystematic.  I'm glad I'm human, and not Vulcan.

Most of all, there seems to be no place in his ideal creation for free will (another difficult concept for any religion), which I believe explains much of the gulf between the intelligent, compassionate creator and the all-too-visible faults of the world we know.  It is also the capacity whichmore than toolmaking, more than language, more than intelligence and the ability to reason—makes us truly human.

One thing that had impressed Janet with Guitar Zero was Marcus's humility.  Since I didn't notice that at all"God should have done things the way I would have" is not exactly a humble attitude, and neither is "if you don't agree with me, there's something wrong with your brain"—I'm left wondering if it's a matter of personal growth over time (Kluge is the earlier book by four years), or the difference between his attitude toward something he knows he knows nothing about (music) and that toward his field of expertise (psychology).  Certainly Kluge has one significant mark of humility in my mind:  On the cover of the book the author is identified as simply "Gary Marcus."  I am not impressed by the habit of many authors of putting all possible letters prominently after their names:  John Doe, Phd, MD, LLD, etc.  Credentials are a good thing (Marcus is identified on the back cover as "a professor of psychology at New York University and the director of the NYU Child Language Center"), but I see no useful purpose in boasting about one's degrees on the front cover.

A couple of random quotes:

[Humans tend] to believe that what is familiar is good.  Take, for example, an odd phenomenon known as the "mere familiarity" effect:  if you ask people to rate things like the characters in Chinese writing, they tend to prefer those that they have seen before to those they haven't.  Another study, replicated in at least 12 different languages, showed that people have a surprising attachment to the letters found in their own names, preferring words that contain those letters to words that don't.  One colleague of mine has even suggested, somewhat scandalously, that people may love famous paintings as much for their familiarity as for their beauty.

Scandalously?  Not at all.  I thought it was obvious, and in large part a good thing, that familiarity with a subject increases appreciation which increases the desire to learn more which in turn increases familiarity.  It's a blessed cycle, unless there's something bad about the subject itself.  Isn't that a great deal of what parenting is all about, helping our children become familiar with, and thus inclining their hearts toward, the good, the true, and the beautiful?

Pay special attention ... to what some economists call "opportunity costs"; whenever you make an investment, financial or otherwise, ponder what else you might be doing instead.  If you're doing one thing, you can't do another—a fact that we often forget.  Say, for example, that people are trying to decide whether it makes sense to invest $100 million in public funds in a baseball stadium.  That $100 million may well bring some benefits, but few people evaluate such projects in the context of what else that money might do, what opportunities (such as paying down the debt to reduce future interest payments or building three new elementary schools) must be foresworn in order to make that stadium happen.  Because such costs don't come with a readily visible price tag, we often ignore them.  On a personal level, taking opportunity costs into account means realizing that whenever we make a choice to do something, such as watch television, we are using time that could be spent in other ways, like cooking a nice meal or taking a bike ride with our kids.

There's a lot more in Kluge I could talk about, but I'm thinking about opportunity costs now, so I'll stop here.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, January 15, 2013 at 10:41 am | Edit
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