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KLUGE by Gary Marcus


The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind

By Gary Marcus

Pub Date: April 16th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-618-87964-9
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

A shot across the bow of intelligent design by a rising student of the mind.

Marcus (Psychology/NYU; The Birth of the Mind: How a Tiny Number of Genes Creates the Complexities of Human Thought, 2003, etc.), a student of Steven Pinker’s, ventures onto that scholar’s territory in this work of pop science. The book is wholly accessible to the nonspecialist but likely to attract those already acquainted with amygdala, gyral cortex and other landmarks in the cerebral map, who won’t find much that’s new but will find familiar matters elegantly and entertainingly expressed. The construction of the mind, Marcus asserts, confounds any notion of intelligent design, which presumably should be, well, intelligent. Instead, the brain is a textbook example of a “kluge,” which computer scientist Jackson Granholm defines as “an ill-assorted collection of poorly matching parts, forming a distressing whole.” So are other parts of the body, Marcus notes. The plumbing of the male organ is much more circuitous than is strictly required, while third molars and aching backs speak to the vestigial inefficiency of our makeup. But it is the mind and its manifestations that most occupy Marcus, particularly the memory, “the single factor most responsible for human cognitive idiosyncrasy.” Given that our survival hinges on being able to remember such things as how to operate a ripcord or a brake, it is strange that the memory is so faulty; chalk up our inability to find the car keys to layer upon layer of adaptive shingles on the roof of the mind. Just so, our propensity for doing harmful things such as smoking or drinking too much comes with a whole platform of rationalizations and denials, also helpfully provided by a few million years of primate evolution. Our kluge-ridden language, mixed up with “generics” and “quantifiers” and all sorts of irregularities, doesn’t help matters much. Those wondering why we cling to inane ideas and have no self-control may find comfort in knowing that it’s because “hot” brain systems dominate cool reason—thanks to which, Marcus notes, “carnage often ensues.”

A meaty little book.