Steven Pinker is Professor of Psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the renowned books, 'The language instinct' (Penguin, 1995) and 'Words and rules: the ingredients of language' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000). In this book, described by one reviewer as 'the best book ever written on the human mind', he puts forward a general theory about how and why the human mind works the way it does. Yet it is not a ponderous book; it is beautifully written and full of jokes and stories.
Pinker marries Darwin's theory of evolution to the latest developments in neuroscience and computation. He shows in detail how the process of natural selection shaped our entire neurological networks; how the struggle for survival selects from among our genes those most fit to flourish in our environment. Nature has produced in us bodies, brains and minds attuned to coping intelligently with whatever our environment demands. Housed in our bodies, our minds structure neural networks into adaptive programmes for handling our perceptions. Pinker concludes, "The mind is a system of organs of computation, designed by natural selection to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors faced in their foraging way of life."
Our beliefs and desires are information, allowing us to create meaning. "Beliefs are inscriptions in memory, desires are goal inscriptions, thinking is computation, perceptions are inscriptions triggered by sensors, trying is executing operations triggered by a goal." Pinker writes that the mind has a 'design stance' for dealing with artefacts, a 'physical stance' for dealing with objects, and an 'intentional stance' for dealing with people. "Causal and inferential roles tend to be in sync because natural selection designed both our perceptual and our inferential modules to work accurately, most of the time, in this world." With this down-to-earth kind of explanation, there is no need to invoke mysterious intangible powers: "We don't need spirits or occult forces to explain intelligence." Pinker sums up the recent amazing developments in neurobiology and cognitive science. This book, like those by his colleagues Daniel Dennett ('Darwin's dangerous idea' and 'Consciousness explained') and Richard Dawkins ('River out of Eden' and 'Unweaving the rainbow'), should be required reading. They are all Darwinians, but then why shouldn't they be? It is just like saying that all physicists are Einsteinians nowadays, or that all poets and playwrights are Shakespeareans, or that all osteopaths are Stillians. Their books make Karl Popper, so hostile to Darwin, and Californian gurus like Fritjof Capra, sadly outdated.