Guest Post by Seth Herd.
I disagree with many of Gary Marcus‘s theories, but I think that his book Kluge is important, entertaining, and even accurate. The book’s main thesis is that if God had designed the human mind, He would’ve done a better job. I’m not all that interested in arguments about intelligent design, but Kluge also has a lot to say about the human brain/mind and even the human condition.
I’ve frequently baffled and offended my students by saying “people are stupid!” Kluge is about how, exactly, we are stupid. In large part the book echoes introductory cognitive psychology textbooks that list the flaws in human thinking – the way we’re afraid to fly but not drive, forget people’s names, make choices that make us unhappy, and many more. The book adds many examples that entertain, while making it painfully clear that we’re not quite as sharp as we would like to think. This is not all gloom and doom, though – Marcus says that we can compensate for our flaws, if we understand them.
This is a refreshing change from the oppressive feeling one gets from most modern neuroscience: “We’ve located the source of the behavior – it’s in your BRAIN!” Well, then, I suppose it’s nothing I can help? The nature/nurture debate rages on, with a rather glum algebra as its focus: how much of your behavior is the result of genetics versus your life history? The implication is that these two sum to one hundred percent, leaving zero percent choice. Marcus’s previous books, The Algebraic Mind and The Birth of the Mind, have focused heavily on how evolution has shaped the mind, implying that learning does relatively little. In this book, Marcus tries his hand at being helpful, and in doing so reveals that he at least thinks that the human mind can learn new tricks. Although you’re shaped by genetics and childhood learning, it’s not too late to learn some important things.
We estimate probabilities badly; learn to do it better, and develop a habit of doing so when it’s important. We misunderstand what makes us happy in the long run; study up, then remember your studies when it’s time to make important decisions. We tend to seek evidence that confirms our existing theories; develop a habit of considering alternate hypotheses. This is hopeful, useful advice, and it’s the reason I’m recommending the book.
As science writing it falls a bit short. Marcus’s main point (after the point that we did in fact evolve) is that evolution is blind, and builds upon past success even when it would work better to redesign completely. This is a valid and interesting point, but it becomes a bit repetitious. There’s also some relevance to the science of the mind: the ways we’re stupid can help to reveal how the mind works. But Marcus does not focus on making those connections. This weakness is also a strength. Marcus has not overly complicated his book with his controversial theories of how the mind works – and I won’t trouble you here with mine. Read the book if you want to become less stupid, by way of learning how stupid you are. One puzzle Marcus doesn’t quite address: he advises us to develop new habits of thought; but how does one get in the habit of developing useful habits? Solve that riddle and you would hold the key to changing yourself in any way you cared to.