Book Review: How the mind works by Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is a Harvard Prof. whose work mostly involves cognitive psychology, computational theory of mind and evolutionary psychology. His book “How the mind works” is basically a collection of essays around different aspects of our life and how the mind deals with it in a certain way. The book is exceptionally insightful and much more lucid compared to his other book “The Blank Slate”.

Before I talk about the book, I think I must write few lines about Pinker himself. Steven Pinker is Jewish. He is fairly controversial and yet considered to be non partisan. He is with Harvard which is in general very left leaning and yet Pinker himself can not be easily put into left or right groups. His writings have resonated with both sides of the political spectrum. He has been invited at Google server times for Google’s tech talks, has won numerous awards and participated in several debates. Some of his opinions have made him a target of “cancel culture” but he has survived them all. Nissim Nichilas Taleb, a famous mathematician has been a very aggressive critic of Pinker calling him all sort of names.

The book

Human mind is complicated. We all know that but Pinker takes us on a journey where he selects several themes and explains to us why our mind acts in a certain way, even though we might take it for granted in these circumstances. Why do we love our children, who to people cheat in relationships, why incest is considered bad and so on.

About Family

The family related chapter is the one I really liked and it answered some of the questions I always had in my mind.

Consider our parents. Parents are the most selfless people on earth. But their selflessness has limits. For parents their children is a way to ensure that their genetic material survives. In a sense parents protect their children to ensure survival of that genetic material. Parents constantly optimise for that survival factor rather than the good of their child.

For example a parent who has two kids who are constantly fighting against each other will always teach restraint and forgiveness to both children to ensure that both children survive though it is perfectly possible that one of the child is total prick and does not deserve forgiveness of the brother. (See this in context of ancient times where brothers could just kill their siblings over petty fights).

Daughters (and sons to lesser extent) for their parents is something they trade to build alliances with other families which improves mutual survival. However a marriage is completely useless for the married man if his wife does not bear his children but that of someone else. Hence such a man would just kill his wife and children. Virginity is a good way to determine if the girl would bear his and only his children. (Assuming the girl who has sex with someone else before marriage might do the same post marriage). Hence virginity of the girl gets a lot of importance in marriage and hence for her parents who are using her as a currency to trade relations. The actual interest of the girl however might be in having sex with people of her choice and bearing the best possible children.

This is not so much applicable to boys because if they impregnate some other random woman it means if that child survives their genetic material survives too hence no one cares about fidelity of man.

Parents oppose love marriages for the same reason and even go to the extent of honor killing because love marriage bring little value to parents though it might be in the best interest of their children. Love marriages are random in parents perspective and the lose their right to carefully bargain in their child’s return.

Babies

A mother breastfeeds her young child. This takes a great toll on her health because it is her nutrients that are being shared by this child. In a way there is this tradeoff between mother and child’s interests right in the womb. If in early stages mother refuses to breastfeed the baby it might die, but as the baby grows and still wants to be breastfed, the mother has not interest in doing so because she gets nothing in return (compared to previously where she got safety of baby in return), at this point mother would rather let the baby survive on something else and focus on having next baby.

Survival of a baby is a tricky thing. Even with all modern medicines a lot of newborns die pretty soon. Apparently parents are already mentally prepared for this. Mothers feel much less pain when a newborn baby is dead than say a 5 year old child dies. Our traditions to wait till 7 days to name the child also comes from the fact that naming the child gives it an identity and hence a memory if the child dies. So wait for a a week to see if the child survives before naming it.

Once the baby is well past the danger years (first 3) the mother focuses on the new child. It is often complained that younger children in family are more pampered. The only child is more pampered. This is not a myth. The younger child is often born when the woman is already aware that this is her last child. Hence she gives all possible attention to his/her survival because she wont have another opportunity.

Incest

An overwhelmingly large research shows that almost all people perceive incest as a bad thing. Siblings do not want to have sex with each other and mere thought is repulsive for them. What if two children who are brought up as siblings even though they dont share any blood (but think that they do) ?.

Even in such cases those sibling show same repulsion for incest. Desirability of sex in our mind indirectly depends on how “good” we find that mate to bear our children. In fact all the human definitions of beauty are actually linked to ability to produce children. For example a man may look handsome even in his 50s or 60s but even the most beautiful women dont have the same sex appeal in their 50s. This is because our brain has learned the subtle hints that the woman is well past her reproductive age.

But it is not merely looks but environment factors also play a role in it. Whether a child believed a certain person to be his/her sibling matters too.

Thousands of years ago probably incest was common. But inbreeding leads to birth defects hence such children die at faster rate. Soon all the people who though incest was okay are dead and only those who thought it was bad (or by coincidence did not have such mating for several generations) survive. We are their descendants.

Blood is thicker than water

Sense of kinship is always above other kind of associations. For example two brother who do not trust each other would still trust each other more than a complete stranger.

Nepotism, that is giving favours to family members has got a negative connotation only recently but is encoded in our genes. We will always trust and prefer our own kin over other people.

Military and Religion have figured this out. That is why often both these institutions make a virtue out of betraying your own family. For example the solider on the border who is away from his family is painted as a great hero.

The religion (all religions) is even more extreme. It demands that a person break all ties with his family, someone renounce any possibility of having a family in future. Because a person who might have ties with his family would prefer them over the God.

This is to such an extent that both Bible and Koran have the story of Abraham who sacrifices his own beloved child to prove his loyalty to God. The day is celebrated even today as Eid.

Conclusion

We are like cavemen in modern times. A lot of our thinking is actually shaped by the collective evolutionary processes that happened hundreds and thousands of years ago. It is weird and fascinating at the same time. Pinker’s book is hence worth a buy.

Rating: 5/5

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I have read this book and it is very interesting. His book blank slate is also very good.