Re: PSYCH: Book Recommendation: Pinker's "How the Mind Works"

Mark Crosby (
Mon, 23 Mar 1998 07:25:57 -0800 (PST)

One case against Pinker's 'explanations' of How the
Mind Works is made in a London debate from January
between Pinker and neurobiologist Steven Rose which
is transcribed at

The essence of Rose's claim is: "The mistake that
evolutionary psychology makes in this reverse
engineering discussion is constantly to mistake
metaphor and analogy for homology, and draw what I
regard as both horrendous scientific and horrendous
political conclusions from it.... Human life, human
society, is much much richer than these travesties.
And I do insist that what you [Pinker] offer is a
Flintstone type travesty of life today."

Rose also refers to many of these reverse engineering
conclusions as "Just-So Stories".

I think Pinker's most useful contribution is the
"organs of computation" notion itself. As Pinker put
it in his 9701 interview with John Brockman at

"I also believe that the mind is not made of Spam -
it has a complex, heterogeneous structure. It is
composed of mental organs that are specialized to do
different things ... That puts me in agreement with
Chomsky and against many neural network modelers, who
hope that a single kind of neural network, if
suitably trained, can accomplish every mental feat
that we do."

While this is somewhat of a 'strawman', it's still a
useful point to keep in mind. As Pinker puts it in
the 9801 debate with Rose: "My approach is most
definitely not reductionist in the bad sense of
trying to explain everything in terms of the smallest
units of analysis".

However, "organs of COGNITION" might be a better term
because many psychologists and biologists would
dispute that what the brain does is anything like
computation. Pinker acknowledges this, but he still
insists that the brain creates 'representations' of
the outside world. There is, however, MUCH dispute
about this claim. (Psyche-D archives are FULL of this

I also find that Pinker is fairly arrogant when he
declares: "I find it hard to escape the feeling that
much of Professor Rose's approach just REDESCRIBES
standard biology with new jargon: words like
'autopoiesis' and 'homeodynamics' and
'self-construction'". This is NOT 'new' jargon.
Maturana & Varela's theory of autopoiesis has been
around since the 60's and grew out of the cybernetics
work from much earlier, particularly by Heinz von
Foerster at the University of Illinois Biological
Computing Lab. As Steven Rose claims, these theories
offer "a deeper and a richer materialism than Steve
[Pinker] is in his account. It's a materialism that
takes account of dynamism, and isn't statically
frozen in the past".

Besides the recent Rose debate, there are many other
responses to Pinker available online at

In the final comments there, Arnold Trehub concludes:
"Steven Pinker and Steven Quartz (together with
Terrence Sejnowski) [Radical Constructivism] have
staked their opposing claims near the extremes of the
nature-nurture continuum.... But I wonder how soundly
each of them can argue against the more credible view
that *innate domain-specific brain mechanisms* and
*learning-dependent brain structures* are *together
indespensible* for the creation of the mature human

Some may complain about the quality of much stuff
posted on the Web; but, I'm more concerned when
people want to learn about a subject outside of their
profession and just pick one or two books by a few
notable authors and base most of their conclusions on
those. Thus, by relying on, for example, the
Extropian reading list, one could end up being
familiar with Richard Dawkins, Paul Churchland, and,
now, Steven Pinker, without being aware that these
researchers are considered to lie at extreme ends of
the spectrum by many other researchers in their
respective fields.

Mark Crosby
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