A stimulating, if simplistic, Darwinian take on human nature.




Human minds and cultures are playthings of primeval urges, according to this provocative treatise on evolutionary psychology.

We think of society, with its complex organization and advanced technology, as the triumph of reason over brute passions, but biophysicist Miller says that the rational intellect is the handmaid of emotional drives laid down by natural selection. Emotions hardwired in DNA are what generate desires and goals, Miller says, so a purely rational man would lack initiative and a survival instinct; having no emotional preference for safety over danger, he would sit passively as his house burned down around him. The author grounds this reasoning in a lucid, engaging overview of evolutionary theory and neurobiology—and then he’s off to the races with breezy evolutionary rationales for every behavioral and social norm under the sun. Natural selection, he says, gave us genetic propensities for both altruism and skepticism; for men to want slender women, and women dominant men; to love the Mona Lisa (a mother-figure smiling at our inner toddler) and hate child murderers (“such acts threaten the gene succession”); and to fear God, even if he is merely “a lie told by our genes to compel us to act in ways that increase our biological success.” Miller sticks mainly to confident assertion and rarely cites scientific evidence proving the genetic basis of these traits. (He does review, as a real-world model of natural man, an 18th-century account of a Canadian Indian tribe whose men wrestled over women, beat their wives and jubilantly massacred rival bands.) Not all scientists would follow him in ascribing cultural differences between European settlers and indigenous hunter-gatherers to genetics, or embrace his Nietzchean vision of human development. (“As we look back through the ages at the smoldering remains of a thousand fires of genocide, we see one figure only emerging from the hanging pall—Homo sapiens sapiens triumphant!”) Still, Miller dishes up intriguing food for thought about what makes us tick.

A stimulating, if simplistic, Darwinian take on human nature.

Pub Date: July 20, 2010

ISBN: 978-1453601488

Page Count: 188

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Jan. 24, 2011

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Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our...


A psychologist and Nobel Prize winner summarizes and synthesizes the recent decades of research on intuition and systematic thinking.

The author of several scholarly texts, Kahneman (Emeritus Psychology and Public Affairs/Princeton Univ.) now offers general readers not just the findings of psychological research but also a better understanding of how research questions arise and how scholars systematically frame and answer them. He begins with the distinction between System 1 and System 2 mental operations, the former referring to quick, automatic thought, the latter to more effortful, overt thinking. We rely heavily, writes, on System 1, resorting to the higher-energy System 2 only when we need or want to. Kahneman continually refers to System 2 as “lazy”: We don’t want to think rigorously about something. The author then explores the nuances of our two-system minds, showing how they perform in various situations. Psychological experiments have repeatedly revealed that our intuitions are generally wrong, that our assessments are based on biases and that our System 1 hates doubt and despises ambiguity. Kahneman largely avoids jargon; when he does use some (“heuristics,” for example), he argues that such terms really ought to join our everyday vocabulary. He reviews many fundamental concepts in psychology and statistics (regression to the mean, the narrative fallacy, the optimistic bias), showing how they relate to his overall concerns about how we think and why we make the decisions that we do. Some of the later chapters (dealing with risk-taking and statistics and probabilities) are denser than others (some readers may resent such demands on System 2!), but the passages that deal with the economic and political implications of the research are gripping.

Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our minds.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-374-27563-1

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2011

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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