Magazine article The Spectator

An Entertaining Evening Finding out How Professor Pinker's Mind Works

Magazine article The Spectator

An Entertaining Evening Finding out How Professor Pinker's Mind Works

Article excerpt

The acclaim accorded to How the Mind Works by Professor Steven Pinker made me sit up. 'A revolution under way' was the headline in The Spectator: the book is 'a celebration of the marriage of the two most important ideas in the entire history of the life sciences', evolution by natural selection, and information processing as a model of the brain. `To have read it', continued the enthusiastic reviewer, `is to have consulted a first draft of the structural plan of the human psyche.' Wow! Tina Brown's New Yorker added its own smarty-boots squeak of awe: `The book marks out the territory on which the coming century's debate about human nature will be held.'

The rising power and popularity of the Darwinian fundamentalists is one of the most striking quasi-religious phenomena of our time. The enthusiasm which its hot gospellers like Pinker and Richard Dawkins arouse disturbs me, rather as atheists are horrified by the way in which the prairie-fire preaching of Bible-belt evangelicals inflames America's moral majority. How can any scientist be so sure of anything as these magi seem to be? And how can so many educated people accept their claims on the basis of such meagre evidence? So last Thursday I went to the London School of Economics to see Pinker in action at one of his revivalist meetings.

It was jam-packed, many of the faithful having trudged long distances, to judge by their rucksacks. Pinker is still young but smothered in academic laurels. He begins his book on a note of humility: `We don't understand how the mind works,' but this disclaimer is soon abandoned. Pinker is sure he does know how the mind works. `Our organs of computation are a product of natural selection,' he writes. They are the work of what he calls `the Blind programmer'. `Our mental programmes . . . were shaped by selection to allow our ancestors to master rocks, tools, plants, animals, and each other, ultimately in the service of survival and reproduction.' He and the researchers whose work he epitomises are doing for the mind what Darwin did for the body: for the explanation of the mind, he goes back to the birth of humanity just as Freud went back to infancy and childhood for the explanation of the adult. He thinks no other hypothesis is possible, and that the data is flooding in to substantiate it. Anyone who disagrees with his approach is a 'creationist', the dismissive term American East Coast intellectuals apply to those who believe in God as the architect of the universe.

Two things struck me about Pinker. The first was his hair. It is beautifully bushy and curly, and its `sweet disorder' is evidently the product of much trouble and art, and dollars. That tells me a lot about how his mind works anyway. The second thing was his extraordinary ineptitude in managing his visual aids. They were quite unnecessary anyway, adding nothing to his discourse. With one marginal exception, they merely repeated what he was saying in tiny, typewritten characters illegible to most of his audience. But in order to put them on the screen he had constantly to dart backwards and forwards, an intensely irritating and distracting performance and of no help to the continuity of his unscripted talk. Unlike his hunter-gatherer ancestors, he is no great shakes at solving perfectly simple physical difficulties - or realising that he does not need to solve them at all, that they do not in fact exist - and I suppose that too tells us a lot about how his mind works. …

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