Study Guide

How the Mind Works

by Steven Pinker

How the Mind Works Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The publication of Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (1994) aroused considerable attention and shattered many long-cherished myths about how children master language. Pinker, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), discounted parents as the chief teachers of language to young children. He points out that language acquisition, despite its complexity, is a relatively easy accomplishment for most children. It appears to follow some sort of instinctive, internalized paradigm, some internalized grammatical structure.

For this reason, young children whose parents speak perfectly standard English consistently form irregular past tenses (swimmeddrivedholded), according to some system to which they have not been exposed by the language speakers around them. Parents say swamdrove, and held; when their young children say swimmeddrived, and holded, they are applying a regular rule for forming past tenses to irregular verbs that form their past tenses in other ways.

How the Mind Works represents an extension and considerable broadening of the investigation Pinker did in preparing The Language Instinct. In the more recent book, the author takes on the entire mind, examining it and its reactions in close detail and in relation to a broad variety of matters: emotions, religious beliefs, perceptions of beauty, human sexuality, gender issues, humor, cognition, genetics, adaptation, and a host of other topics that relate to the mind.

Pinker begins his massive book with the kind of disclaimer appropriate for any book as ambitious as this one, and toward the end he articulates his goal in researching and writing it: “[T]o get you to step outside your own mind for a moment and see your thoughts and feelings as magnificent contrivances of the natural world rather than as the only way that things could be.”

As the book concludes, he presents yet another disclaimer by asking, “[I]f the mind is a system of organs designed by natural selection, why should we ever have expected it to comprehend all mysteries, to grasp all truths?” He goes on to rejoice that the problems of science with which he is dealing are close enough to the problems of our foraging ancestors that he is able to move toward the insights he does.

Pinker reaches fresh and remarkable conclusions in discussing a number of matters that most people have long taken for granted. For example, in discussing religiously imposed food taboos, he evades the obvious (and probably fallacious) rationalizations, pointing out that in groups that are attempting to preserve some sort of exclusivity, food taboos discourage members of their closed societies from becoming intimate with those outside the group.

In addressing religion, Pinker notes that according to recent polls, half of all Americans believe that the book of Genesis is literally true, that a quarter of Americans believe in witches and half in ghosts, that 87 percent believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, and that 96 percent believe in God or in some comparable universal spirit. Seemingly, the human mind has always sought explanations for inscrutable occurrences and, in the process, invented religious beliefs. Why did lightning strike the tree beside which someone was standing, causing it to fall down and kill the innocent bystander? From the first dawning of human intelligence, humankind presumably postulated cause-and-effect relationships that, in most cases, led them to faulty conclusions. Whole mythologies and theologies were built upon such conclusions and led people to believe, as H. L. Mencken observed, “in the palpably not true.”

In viewing the earliest hunter-gatherer societies, Pinker derives an explanation for generosity and altruism. Unable easily to preserve excess food, particularly meat, hunters who had a surplus stored it in the best possible storage vehicle, the human body. They shared their surplus with those around them. Presumably, when those around them had their own surpluses, they reciprocated, sharing what they had with those who had previously shared with them. If such was indeed the case, then Pinker has identified a wellspring of cooperation among early humanoids, relating it to origins at once homely and practical.

Throughout his study, Pinker contends that the mind works as it does because of evolution in the Darwinian sense. Social and sexual mores, for example, can be traced to the earliest hunter-gatherer societies. The major function of all humans was initially to be fruitful and multiply in a world in which life expectancy was not great and in which population was sparse. Because of the need to populate the earth,...

(The entire section is 1971 words.)