Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works

My second foray into the works of Steven Pinker, Harvard professor and cognitive scientist, is his 1997 bestseller How the Mind Works, an ambitious attempt to synthesize competing theories of not only how the mind works – how thoughts and emotions are processed – but how it came to work the way it does. The mystery of the intellect, which is the mystery of how complex and abstract thought can arise from and transcend organic matter, has piqued the curiosity of mankind for millenia. Philosophers, theologists, scientists and writers have all, in their turn, added to the discussion, and part of Pinker’s genius and appeal is his familiarity with their thought: a quick glance at the book’s index reveals a healthy sprinkling of references to Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, George Orwell, Jean-Paul Sartre and several dozen other prominent non-scientists, all of whom are drawn on as Pinker elucidates his theory and dashes conventional wisdom about the mind.

Tradition has long held that human beings are a temporary mix of mind and matter, an earthly form imbued with a divine spark. The dichotomy between the flesh and the spirit is a central tenet of the Abrahamic religions, and figures prominently in Christianity and literature influenced by the Christian tradition, but the secular or philosophical theories have made little progress in differentiating themselves from this pervasive dualism, so much so that today’s secularists are often comfortable with the concept of the soul and unconsciously adopt the vernacular of theists: soulmate, spirit, base instincts, etc. Even our conception of free will, which forms the foundation of our justice system, assumes a presiding spirit capable of autonomous thought, and has only very recently been complicated with notions of mental illness.

Another challenge to making progress towards understanding the human mind has, paradoxically, come from social scientists, who have embraced what Pinker calls the “Standard Social Science Model” of the mind, one in which our biology endows us with the five senses, a few drives like hunger and fear, and a basic ability to learn, with the rest of our upbringing in the hands of the forces of culture, an “autonomous entity that carries out a desire to perpetuate itself  by setting up expectations and assigning roles, which can vary arbitrarily from society to society.” The danger, Pinker points out, is that this model has also acquired a moral authority: culture’s omnipotence allows for a great deal of social engineering, making possible a society without racism, sexism or violence, providing that the foundations of culture can be challenged and people can be “educated” out of these horrible modes of thinking. Thus, when scientists began to argue that violence, and the tendency towards violent action, were characteristics favored by natural selection, they were met with vitriolic backlash. The Seville Statement on Violence, signed by twenty social scientists in 1986, claimed to “challenge a number of alleged biological findings that have been used, even by some in our disciplines, to justify violence and war,” and included the following missive:

  • It is scientifically incorrect to say that we have inherited a tendency to make war from our animal ancestors
  • It is scientifically incorrect to say that war or any other violent behavior is genetically programmed into our human nature.
  • It is scientifically incorrect to say that in the course of human evolution there has been a selection for aggressive behavior more than for other kinds of behavior
  • It is scientifically incorrect to say that humans have a “violent brain”
  • It is scientifically incorrect to say that war is caused by “instinct” or any single motivation… We conclude that biology does not condemn humanity to war, and that humanity can be freed from the bondage of biological pessimism and empowered with confidence to undertake the transformative tasks needed in the International Year of Peace and in the years to come

The drafters of this statement were wrong on several counts, beginning with their illogical implication that to suggest human beings were selected for aggressive characteristics and an ability to successfully make war – something that, in 2012, is not a scientific controversy so much as a humdrum commonplace – is to condone warfare or violence! Pinker disabuses them of their beliefs with page after page of eloquent argument, drawing on ethnologists, zoologists, geneticists and cultural sociologists to demonstrate both the ubiquity of violence in human societies and the constant struggle towards peace and equilibrium that is every bit as innate in human beings as the tendency towards violence and destruction.

Pinker grounds his arguments in Darwinian evolution, showcasing how even our emotions – as complex and incomprehensible as we often like to think they are – can be understood in terms of natural selection and the benefits they might confer on our increasingly complex species. Much of the beginning of the book is devoted to the evolution of stereoscopic vision and how our minds evolved to process real-world sensory inputs. The lessons gleaned from this example, which is more widely grasped than much of the rest of our cognitive development, are then extrapolated and applied to less-well understood aspects of the human condition: family values, sexual relationships, violent behavior, love, marriage and childrearing, among others.

It is a testament to Pinker’s brilliance that his hypothesis is both paradigm-shifting – forcing us to reconsider every aspect of our lives, particularly those we are most inclined to take for granted – and filled with an explanatory power whose simplicity is matched only by its efficacy at explaining even our most idiosyncratic tendencies and behaviors. His work also confirms for me what, as a student of literature, I had long suspected: that despite differences of nation, gender, skin color and culture, we are all of us subject to a common human condition, and that the project of exposing the highs, lows and absurdities of this condition – no matter how narrow the focus – will always be one of unification and expansion rather than segregation and restriction. Judged by this standard, Pinker belongs in the company of the great thinkers he so often draws on.