The Set Within the Skull

Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker; drawing by David Levine

If you want to find schizophrenia, go to a psychology department. Not among the staff (although some do seem to hear voices inaudible to the rest of us) but within the subject. It has gone from describing varieties of religious experience to censusing them, from phrenology to scanning brains and DNA, and at last—coming full circle—to explaining belief in Darwinian terms. Psychology is a journey from the arts to the sciences and back again.

How the Mind Works is a route map across the Great Divide, an ambitious attempt to explain how we act, think, and feel in terms of cognitive science. Steven Pinker believes that the voyage of discovery is more or less complete; or, at least, we have got about as far as we will. In spite of an escape clause of the kind familiar to consumers of health foods (“We don’t understand how the mind works”), his agenda is clear. It is presented in the forceful manner expected of the author of The Language Instinct. The mind works in a particular way, he says, because of evolution.

The mind is almost as hard to define as the soul. Four years after The Origin of Species, the Reverend Charles Kingsley was the first to use evolution to metaphysical ends: in The Water Babies a drowned chimney sweep is reborn, meets Darwin and Huxley, and evolves a moral sense lacking in his earthly self. After all, if evolution could produce that miracle, the Englishman, why could it not produce the greater miracle, the soul? Ethics, religion, and science were neatly reconciled.

Steven Pinker transcends the Water Babies school of brain science, but in some places only just. He is as keen on what evolution can do as was Charles Kingsley. That, in the broad sense, the mind evolved is not at all surprising. It had as little choice in the matter as did the kidney. Because of evolution, the parent of creatures as unlikely as the tree-kangaroo and the AIDS virus, the human brain does unexpected and at first sight mysterious things. Those who study it have long ignored its past: according to this book, “the study of the mind is still mostly Darwin-free, sometimes defiantly so.”

Pinker does his best to put the balance right. To demystify the mysteries of seeing, gambling, laughing, and (possibly) falling in love we need to understand the brain’s antecedents. History may not contain everything the brain does, but it defines the limits within which it is obliged to work. Take those irritating “magic eye” books that at first sight seem just a set of textured pages. Suddenly, from each a giraffe or a racing car pops out. They come from our ability to see in stereo, perhaps a relic of a life surrounded by millions of identical leaves from which a juicy insect had to be distinguished.

Is Pinker’s—notably daring—title sensible, or does…

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