With verve and clarity, the author of The Language Instinct (1993) offers a thought-challenging explanation of why our minds work the way they do
Pinker, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT, synthesizes cognitive science and evolutionary biology to present the human mind as a system of mental modules designed to solve the problems faced by our evolutionary ancestors in their foraging way of life, i.e., understanding and outmaneuvering objects, animals, plants, and other people. He brings together two theories: the computational theory of mind, which says that the processing of information, including desires and beliefs, is the fundamental activity of the brain, and the theory of natural selection. He suggests that four traits of our ancestors may have been prerequisites to the evolution of powers of reasoning: good vision, group living, free hands, and hunting. He believes that human brains, having evolved by the laws of natural selection and genetics, now interact according to laws of cognitive and social psychology, human ecology, and history. He considers in turn perception, reasoning, emotion, social relations, and the so-called higher callings of art, music, literature, religion, and philosophy. (Language is omitted here, having been treated in his earlier work.) What could be heavy going with a less talented guide is an enjoyable expedition with the witty Pinker leading the way. To get his message across he draws on old camp songs, limericks, movie dialogue, optical illusions, logic problems, musical scores, science fiction, and much more. Along the way, he demolishes some cherished notions, especially feminist ones, and has some comforting words for those who struggled through Philosophy 101 (solving philosophical problems is not what the human mind was evolved to do).