Swirling synapses

Michael Siegal marvels at the intricacies and paradoxes of our evolutionary psychology

July 17, 2008

In this lively, controversial book, Gary Marcus sets out to document how the human mind can be best viewed as a type of "kluge". Although a kluge is defined on the jacket cover as "a solution that is clumsy or inelegant yet surprisingly effective", Marcus's thesis is that this clumsiness results in an ineffective, unreliable mind that is routinely mistaken in thinking and reasoning.

In seeking to counter the view that the mind is well engineered to take on the challenges of modern life, Marcus highlights studies that characterise human irrationality as due to faulty memory, confirmation bias that we are always right, lack of self-control, "motivated" reasoning that serves to protect dubious beliefs and the inherent ambiguity of language in which terms and sentence constructions can have more than one meaning - often different from that intended by the speaker.

Importantly, Marcus distinguishes between two brain systems or streams. There is an ancestral or reflexive stream that is fast, automatic and for the most part unconscious, and a deliberative stream that is slow and contemplative in considering facts - a stream that, as Marcus puts it, is the "latest in evolutionary technology". He contends that very often mistakes in thinking result from the hot workings of the ancestral stream overwhelming the cool deliberative one. This process leads to snap (and often disastrous) decision-making in areas ranging from mate selection to food choices and can lead to unhappiness, obesity and depression. Even the Iraq war can be explained, at least in part, in terms of the knee-jerk reaction of George W. Bush to a dictator who endangered his father, George Bush Sr.

Marcus is often at his best when he provides insights into the world of advertising that takes advantage of the clumsiness of the mind as a kluge to market products.

To illustrate his message, Marcus connects very well with popular culture. He liberally refers to films and TV shows such as Annie Hall and Desperate Housewives and news items from The New York Times and Consumer Reports. There are references on almost every other page to the sayings of celebrities such as rock stars (the Beatles - "Happiness is a warm gun") and sporting greats (Yogi Berra - "90 per cent of the game of baseball is half mental"). However, Marcus does overlook a witticism that undermines his thesis: "There is a crack in everything: that's how the light gets in" (Leonard Cohen).

The fact is that some of the kluges Marcus identifies are not as clumsy as he assumes. For example, although Marcus views ambiguity in language as an imperfection of the mind, it has tremendous benefits that go far beyond poetry, for, without ambiguity, we would destroy much of humour. Moreover, Marcus is virtually silent on variations across cultures in the flaws that he seeks to describe. Clearly, cultures vary in their expertise. Success in one culture in areas of mathematics and science education provides a target for other cultures to achieve. So the extent of the kluge factor cannot be the same universally. The widespread recognition that the world could always be a better place than it is gives humans the motivation to better themselves.

In his final chapter, "True wisdom", Marcus offers 13 suggestions for becoming a more effective thinker. These include the need to formulate alternative hypotheses and to remember that causal influences cannot be made on the basis of correlations or coincidences. Yet I would have appreciated it if Marcus had expressed more of the scepticism he himself advocates. (A more in-depth look at wisdom and common sense can be found in sources such as John Ralston Saul's The Doubter's Companion.)

Nevertheless, Marcus does go some considerable way to showing how the mind is a patchwork of multiple systems that work in conflict. Kluge can be recommended as a useful and highly accessible introduction to many of the key issues in evolutionary and social psychology and will entertain and enthral a wide readership.

Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind

By Gary Marcus

Faber and Faber

224pp, £15.99

ISBN 9780571236510

Published 5 June 2008

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