How The Mind Works by Steven Pinker, 1997

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The “basic” tasks that the mind does (see, walk, and make decisions about what to eat) are extremely complex and require an explanation—how are humans able to do such things, and how could such a skill set have come about?

Pinker combines a computational theory of mind (minds are information processors, like computers which pursue goals by acting on rational rules) and the theory of natural selection (animals are replicators, some replicators have traits which allow them to replicate more successfully in certain contexts, and these replicators come to dominate the population in that context)  to argue that the mind is a computing organ designed by natural selection to help human ancestors overcome obstacles to achieve goals in the context in which they evolved.

The mind is compartmentalized to accomplish specific tasks—as evidenced by the loss of specific capacities due to brain injury.  There are for major modules within the mind: visual, phonological, grammatical, and “mentalese”—the wordless language of thought where we store or grasp the gist of ideas.  Pinker walks us through the specifics and evidence for these modules and fleshes out how and why they work the way they do.

He explains how phenomena like art, emotions, and behaviors within families and societies can be explained as extensions or outgrowths of these models, extending the explanatory power of the computational/Darwinian framework to encompass a huge amount of human activity.

Pinker is careful to note that natural selection is not directed at producing intelligent life; in fact it is aimed at nothing except improving survival and reproduction rates of whatever replicator carries the genes.

He’s also clear that ethical and philosophical questions are not and cannot be resolved by further developments within this framework; he goes so far as to suggest that those types of problems are perhaps outside of the scope of the minds with which natural selection has provided us.

Coming into the book fully accepting, and to a lesser degree actually understanding, the concepts of natural selection and the computational theory of mind, it was easy to follow the book’s primary arguments, as outlined above.  I enjoyed the section on computation itself, and many of the factoids shared in the section on vision were fascinating.

Overall some sections feel long, but with scientific theories the devil is in the details, so I understand the need for explicitness.

The book as a whole was generally a smooth read; he illustrates concepts economically and humorously, draws out fallacies in other arguments/theories to strong effect.  The most interesting sections of the book touched on emotions, family and social life, humor, and the arts.  With no musical background, it was difficult to follow the reasoning there, which is probably why his explanation didn’t seem as insightful as the rest of the book.

I feel that his explanation of humor, taken from another academic, isn’t as persuasive/complete as Inside Jokes (Dennett et al).  Pinker discusses the idea of the mind being peacock’s tail to attract other mates, but doesn’t seems to embrace the idea, at least not as a primary driver of the emergence of arts (like Geoffrey Miller).  Instead, he sees art largely as a means of “wire-heading”—essentially a drug that goes right to the pleasure center, bypassing the adaptive behavior this pleasure evolved to reward.

I don’t know much about intellectual movements or history, so I enjoy descriptions of what other schools or approaches believe and why they are wrong.  I especially enjoy how he discusses where some “feminist” and “postmodern” ideology bumps into strong contrary evidence.

I do at times feel confused, because it seems that in many ways he is advocating for evidence or concepts of evolutionary biology to influence our moral systems, while at other times he is quite explicit in stating in how any such research cannot—legitimately—be brought to discussions on ethics.  I need to read more to understand these ideas.

Ideas per Page:1 7/10 (higher)

Related Books: Inside Jokes by Matt Hurley et al; The Moral Animal by Robert Wright; Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite by Robert Kurzban 

Recommend to Others: Good intro, though like I said some parts are a bit tedious (vision section especially).  Moral Animal first, and The Blank Slate for a more exciting Pinker book

Reread Personally:  No.  The sections on the family where most interesting, but perhaps I could find better books on those topics, or that deal with them solely or in greater depth.


1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.

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