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Song of a Traveller: the courtesan's salon - [Book Reviews] "Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind"
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[Book Reviews] "Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind"
It probably says something about me that I had already read about every study cited in Robert Kurzban's pop science work "Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind" and all of the philosophers, but 75% of his movie references were lost upon me. I fail at pop. (Pretty funny, since that's what most of the Amazon reviewers loved about the book.) I was predisposed to like his book, though, because his thesis of the complexity/multiplicity of mind pretty much tallies with my own experience of consciousness. Briefly, he posits that we are not each one solitary controlled actor, but rather each a collection of competing and cooperating neural responses and cognitive processes (he refers to these as modules of the brain) which don't necessarily share information with each other. So we aren't always (or even often) consciously aware that we have done something (heart beating, breathing, etc.), or how we have done it (detectable decision making is not the first neural activity associated with that decision) or, most crucially, why we have done it. He tackles confabulation and split-brain patients, touching on the work of my favorite neurologist V.S. Ramachandran, and then extends this thinking to other neural processes that aren't strictly hemisphere-limited.

The central useful idea of the book discusses cases where we simultaneously hold two conflicting ideas, and explains this as different modules of the brain being adapted for different purposes. That certainly happens and has clear ties to Ramachandran's split-brain work, and when asked how we resolve these seemingly conflicting pieces of information, we usually just make shit up (technical term: confabulation). He explains our brains as adapted for living as social animals, and so one module (he calls it the press secretary) has as its function the favorable presentation of ourselves to others. If this were true, it would sometimes be to our advantage for that module to be strategically ignorant of other things we do or think, much as politicians tend to deny knowledge of whatever inconveniently unpopular thing is advancing their agenda. So in Kurzban's framing, the self-interested modules that are pursuing our own advantage simply don't inform the press secretary module of this, and this explains why you get family values politicians having affairs, Eliot Spitzer, etc. (He didn't reference the GLBT versions thereof, I suspect because some readers will think that's a harder evolutionary sell than het sex.) The thing I would have loved to see discussed that didn't get covered is how these various brain modules arrive at a decision when there is conflict between them. I suspect that the answer is "Nobody knows!", but he spends so much time debunking the little-decider-brain-within-a-big-brain approach that I felt like he owed the reader an alternate hypothesis for how this decision making actually happens, or at least an admission that we haven't the faintest idea.

Kurzban is a straight-up materialist and nothing else is considered, just referenced as history... he comes within a hair of titling a section "Why Your Religion Is Wrong And There Is Nothing But The Brain". But if that doesn't bother you or if you agree with him, you'll probably like this book. I think he's too exclusionary there -- even if you're a materialist too, he doesn't reference or look at the known effects of digestive bacteria on mood or neural activity, for example, and only kinda touches on the substantial body of literature on hormones and their expressions. When you're writing a 220 page book I can kind of understand not wanting to open those cans of E. coli, though. I appreciated his clear delineation of the differences in playing a game against other humans (where you may win via persuasion even if you are wrong) versus playing a game against nature (honey badger don't care about your press secretary) and the cases where that does and doesn't work out for people. But I do think it would do most of us good to be able to think of ourselves more as ecosystems rather than as singly motivated beings... we pretty clearly are. I have found it cognitively useful when thrashing through a complicated problem to not kick myself for "Why do I hold both A and in-this-case not-A?" -- realizing that it's a case of dual inputs which happen to conflict rather than "you suck at logical consistency" helps me figure out what I'm actually going to do. I didn't learn a lot from reading this book -- the one new-information takeaway that I got from it was that Stephen Jay Gould attributed ideas his fellow evolutionists never held to them just so that he could "debunk" them. Pretty annoying to have someone try to prove to you adversarially your own position! Heh. "Gould's strategic errors, painting himself a defender of a completely sensible view in opposition to views held by no one, was thoroughly effective. He died famous, wealthy, and wrong." Dang. (Stephen Jay Gould was one of my childhood heroes; I was reading and loving his books about the time that all this was going on in academia.)

Four monogamy-policing nesting birds out of five.

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rebeccmeister From: rebeccmeister Date: August 15th, 2014 05:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh man. Gould raises a lot of peoples' hackles for a lot of different reasons. I found it really interesting to learn about his writing method - apparently, he didn't let anybody else ever read his drafts. I can imagine that affected the speed with which he was able to write things, but then again, he's clearly a big "ideas" man who has written voluminously and has thus been highly influential whether he's right or wrong.

It's important to realize that the "ideas" men (and for some reason, they're mostly men, yep, hmm) are wrong as often as they're correct. See: E.O. Wilson.

I tend to trust Steven Pinker's opinions on these topics, so a positive review from him as well as you is also a promising sign. :-)

From your review, though, I don't know how much I would actually learn from Hypocrite, although it sounds WAY more substantive than the current stupid NYTimes bestseller on personality psychology I'm attempting to read. Sigh. I should probably stick with evolutionary psychology, or other topics altogether. And I'd agree with you that it would have been better to at least have an admission of current ignorance instead of just glossing over that part.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: August 15th, 2014 06:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think Gould was for me what Heinlein was for many of my fellow nerds -- that formative-years influence that shows you a larger world than the one you inhabit, and who wrote many many books. I wasn't allowed to read fantasy novels when I was a kid (that 80's devil worship D&D scare thing) but I was allowed to read books about science, and I found the possibility that one could grow up and think big thoughts about how to understand the universe super attractive. As with many childhood idols, once I got into the weeds I discovered that it wasn't as pretty as Gould painted it, but by that point I was already well on the way to being a biologist.

I'm happier when they include neurology, and not just mumbletymumble pick which Harry Potter character you are, oooh, type five. But there's a counterbalancing trend there to reduce neural diversity to the most common explanations, so I get kinda stubborn there too. I think a blend of neurology, evolution, animal behavior, and trying not to carry too many starting assumptions in is about my happy place. (I was so happy to have read "The Myth of Monogamy" and "Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity" before reading this or similar books; it helps stave off that tendency to oversimplify.)
rebeccmeister From: rebeccmeister Date: August 15th, 2014 06:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes, my happy place, too! Which is why I majored in bio-psychology and studied psychopharmacology for a good long while until I concluded that humans weren't especially interesting to me.

One of the more recent fascinating books for me was The Dialectical Biologist (by the Richards Levins and Lewontin, two ace evolutionary biologists), which is actually a collection of essays, but which makes a person look more carefully at the social science side of how the biological sciences work.

I got started more on the Jared Diamond side of the equation in high school (kinda drifted away from sci-fi/fantasy before hitting any of the really good stuff). Diamond's earlier works are far better than his more recent work, though.
duathir From: duathir Date: August 15th, 2014 05:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
I would like well to read this book, although I too fail at pop.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: August 15th, 2014 06:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
If you remind me before the next time we get together, I'll bring it along for you!
5 forks or fork, exec?
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