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Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind
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Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind

3.8 4
by Gary Marcus

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Are we “noble in reason”? Perfect, in God’s image? Far from it, says New York University psychologist Gary Marcus. In this lucid and revealing book, Marcus argues that the mind is not an elegantly designed organ but rather a “kluge,” a clumsy, cobbled-together contraption. He unveils a fundamentally new way of looking at the human


Are we “noble in reason”? Perfect, in God’s image? Far from it, says New York University psychologist Gary Marcus. In this lucid and revealing book, Marcus argues that the mind is not an elegantly designed organ but rather a “kluge,” a clumsy, cobbled-together contraption. He unveils a fundamentally new way of looking at the human mind -- think duct tape, not supercomputer -- that sheds light on some of the most mysterious aspects of human nature.

Taking us on a tour of the fundamental areas of human experience -- memory, belief, decision-making, language, and happiness -- Marcus reveals the myriad ways our minds fall short. He examines why people often vote against their own interests, why money can’t buy happiness, why leaders often stick to bad decisions, and why a sentence like “people people left left” ties us in knots even though it’s only four words long.

Marcus also offers surprisingly effective ways to outwit our inner kluge, for the betterment of ourselves and society. Throughout, he shows how only evolution -- haphazard and undirected -- could have produced the minds we humans have, while making a brilliant case for the power and usefulness of imperfection.

Editorial Reviews

Don't take this personally, but your brain is a mess. And it's not just yours; it's everybody's. NYU psychologist Gary Marcus argues that our brains are kluges, "clumsy, inelegant, yet surprisingly effective organ[s]." To back up his impolite claim, he draws on draws on recent findings in biology, evolutionary science, psychology, and neuroscience. An engaging Darwinian brainteaser as well as a sly addition to the "evolution wars."
Publishers Weekly

Why are we subject to irrational beliefs, inaccurate memories, even war? We can thank evolution, Marcus says, which can only tinker with structures that already exist, rather than create new ones: "Natural selection... tends to favor genes that have immediate advantages" rather than long-term value. Marcus (The Birth of the Mind), director of NYU's Infant Language Learning Center, refers to this as "kluge," a term engineers use to refer to a clumsily designed solution to a problem. Thus, memory developed in our prehominid ancestry to respond with immediacy, rather than accuracy; one result is erroneous eyewitness testimony in courtrooms. In describing the results of studies of human perception, cognition and beliefs, Marcus encapsulates how the mind is "contaminated by emotions, moods, desires, goals, and simple self-interest...." The mind's fragility, he says, is demonstrated by mental illness, which seems to have no adaptive purpose. In a concluding chapter, Marcus offers a baker's dozen of suggestions for getting around the brain's flaws and achieving "true wisdom." While some are self-evident, others could be helpful, such as "Whenever possible, consider alternate hypotheses" and "Don't just set goals. Make contingency plans." Using evolutionary psychology, Marcus educates the reader about mental flaws in a succinct, often enjoyable way. (Apr. 16)

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Children's Literature - Carlee Hallman
By pointing out the inconsistent workings of the human mind, the author is making the case for evolution rather than creation by design. Kluge rhymes with huge and is defined as slang for "A clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem." If human minds were planned, he believes that a better job would have been done. As it is, he says the craziness of the human mind is better explained by hit or miss layers added through eons. "If necessity is the mother of invention, tinkering is the geeky grandfather of kluge." He points out that memory is not reliable and is influenced by context. Belief is often accepted without critical examination. We make inappropriate choices by not balancing our gut feelings with reason. Language is full of inconsistencies that make for garbled communication. Youths make choices based on immediate gratification rather than long-term goals. All this is because our ancestral system in the brain is not coordinated with our more recent acquisition of reasoning power. Thirteen suggestions are listed as aids to better thinking: such as "consider alternative hypotheses" and "reframe the question." Such reasoning is being taught in some places and is more appropriate for getting along in the world than memorizing a lot of facts. Extensive notes, references and an index are included. This is a good book for teachers of young people. Reviewer: Carlee Hallman
Kirkus Reviews
A shot across the bow of intelligent design by a rising student of the mind. Marcus (Psychology/NYU; The Birth of the Mind: How a Tiny Number of Genes Creates the Complexities of Human Thought, 2003, etc.), a student of Steven Pinker's, ventures onto that scholar's territory in this work of pop science. The book is wholly accessible to the nonspecialist but likely to attract those already acquainted with amygdala, gyral cortex and other landmarks in the cerebral map, who won't find much that's new but will find familiar matters elegantly and entertainingly expressed. The construction of the mind, Marcus asserts, confounds any notion of intelligent design, which presumably should be, well, intelligent. Instead, the brain is a textbook example of a "kluge," which computer scientist Jackson Granholm defines as "an ill-assorted collection of poorly matching parts, forming a distressing whole." So are other parts of the body, Marcus notes. The plumbing of the male organ is much more circuitous than is strictly required, while third molars and aching backs speak to the vestigial inefficiency of our makeup. But it is the mind and its manifestations that most occupy Marcus, particularly the memory, "the single factor most responsible for human cognitive idiosyncrasy." Given that our survival hinges on being able to remember such things as how to operate a ripcord or a brake, it is strange that the memory is so faulty; chalk up our inability to find the car keys to layer upon layer of adaptive shingles on the roof of the mind. Just so, our propensity for doing harmful things such as smoking or drinking too much comes with a whole platform of rationalizations and denials, also helpfully provided bya few million years of primate evolution. Our kluge-ridden language, mixed up with "generics" and "quantifiers" and all sorts of irregularities, doesn't help matters much. Those wondering why we cling to inane ideas and have no self-control may find comfort in knowing that it's because "hot" brain systems dominate cool reason-thanks to which, Marcus notes, "carnage often ensues."A meaty little book. Agent: Christy Fletcher, Donald Lamm/Fletcher & Parry

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Remnants of History

It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.

—Bertrand Russell

Are human beings "noble in reason" and "infinite in faculty" as William Shakespeare famously wrote? Perfect, "in God’s image," as some biblical scholars have asserted? Hardly.
If mankind were the product of some intelligent, compassionate designer, our thoughts would be rational, our logic impeccable. Our memory would be robust, our recollections reliable. Our sentences would be crisp, our words precise, our languages systematic and regular, not besodden with irregular verbs (sing-sang, ring-rang, yet bring-brought) and other peculiar inconsistencies. As the language maven Richard Lederer has noted, there would be ham in hamburger, egg in eggplant. English speakers would park in parkways and drive on driveways, and not the other way around.
At the same time, we humans are the only species smart enough to systematically plan for the future—yet dumb enough to ditch our most carefully made plans in favor of short-term gratification. ("Did I say I was on a diet? Mmm, but three-layer chocolate mousse is my favorite . . . Maybe I’ll start my diet tomorrow.") We happily drive across town to save $25 on a $100 microwave but refuse to drive the same distance to save exactly the same $25 on a $1,000 flat-screen TV. We can barely tell the difference between a valid syllogism, such as All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal, and a fallacious counterpart, such as All living things need water, roses need water, therefore roses are living things (which seems fine until you substitute car batteries for roses). If I tell you that "Every sailor loves a girl," you have no idea whether I mean one girl in particular (say, Betty Sue) or whether I’m really saying "to each his own." And don’t even get me started on eyewitness testimony, which is based on the absurd premise that we humans can accurately remember the details of a briefly witnessed accident or crime, years after the fact, when the average person is hard pressed to keep a list of a dozen words straight for half an hour.
I don’t mean to suggest that the "design" of the human mind is a total train wreck, but if I were a politician, I’m pretty sure the way I’d put it is "mistakes were made." The goal of this book is to explain what mistakes were made—and why.

Where Shakespeare imagined infinite reason, I see something else, what engineers call a "kluge." A kluge is a clumsy or inelegant—yet surprisingly effective—solution to a problem. Consider, for example, what happened in April 1970 when the CO2 filters on the already endangered lunar module of Apollo 13 began to fail. There was no way to send a replacement filter up to the crew—the space shuttle hadn’t been invented yet—and no way to bring the capsule home for several more days. Without a filter, the crew would be doomed. The mission control engineer, Ed Smylie, advised his team of the situation, and said, in effect, "Here’s what’s available on the space capsule; figure something out." Fortunately, the ground crew was able to meet the challenge, quickly cobbling together a crude filter substitute out of a plastic bag, a cardboard box, some duct tape, and a sock. The lives of the three astronauts were saved. As one of them, Jim Lovell, later recalled, "The contraption wasn’t very handsome, but it worked."
Not every kluge saves lives. Engineers sometimes devise them for sport, just to show that something—say, building a computer out of Tinkertoys— can be done, or simply because they’re too lazy to do something the right way. Others cobble together kluges out of a mixture of desperation and resourcefulness, like the TV character MacGyver, who, needing to make a quick getaway, jerry-built a pair of shoes from duct tape and rubber mats. Other kluges are created just for laughs, like Wallace and Gromit’s "launch and activate" alarm clock/coffeemaker/Murphy bed and Rube Goldberg’s "simplified pencil sharpener" (a kite attached to a string lifts a door, which allows moths to escape, culminating in the lifting of a cage, which frees a woodpecker to gnaw the wood that surrounds a pencil’s graphite core). MacGyver’s shoes and Rube Goldberg’s pencil sharpeners are nothing, though, compared to perhaps the most fantastic kluge of them all—the human mind, a quirky yet magnificent product of the entirely blind process of evolution.

The origin, and even the spelling, of the word kluge is up for grabs. Some spell it with a d (kludge), which has the virtue of looking as clumsy as the solutions it denotes, but the disadvantage of suggesting the wrong pronunciation. (Properly pronounced, kluge rhymes with huge, not sludge. One could argue that the spelling klooge (rhymes with stooge) would even better capture the pronunciation, but I’m not about to foist a third spelling upon the world.) Some trace the word to the old Scottish word cludgie, which means "an outside toilet." Most believe the origins lie in the German word Kluge, which means "clever." The Hacker’s Dictionary of Computer Jargon traces the term back at least to 1935, to a "Kluge [brand] paper feeder," described as "an adjunct to mechanical printing presses."

The Kluge feeder was designed before small, cheap electric motors and control electronics; it relied on a fiendishly complex assortment of cams, belts, and linkages to both power and synchronize all its operations from one motive driveshaft. It was accordingly temperamental, subject to frequent breakdowns, and devilishly difficult to repair—but oh, so clever!

Virtually everybody agrees that the term was first popularized in February 1962, in an article titled "How to Design a Kludge," written, tongue in cheek, by a computer pioneer named Jackson Granholm, who defined a kluge as "an ill-assorted collection of poorly matching parts, forming a distressing whole." He went on to note that "the building of a Kludge . . . is not work for amateurs. There is a certain, indefinable, masochistic finesse that must go into true Kludge building. The professional can spot it instantly. The amateur may readily presume that ‘that’s the way computers are.’"
The engineering world is filled with kluges. Consider, for example, something known as vacuum-powered windshield wipers, common in most cars until the early 1960s. Modern windshield wipers, like most gizmos on cars, are driven by electricity, but back in the olden days, cars ran on 6 volts rather than 12, barely enough power to keep the spark plugs going and certainly not enough to power luxuries like windshield wipers. So some clever engineer rigged up a kluge that powered windshield-wiper motors with suction, drawn from the engine, rather than electricity. The only problem is that the amount of suction created by the engine varies, depending on how hard the engine is working. The harder it works, the less vacuum it produces. Which meant that when you drove your 1958 Buick Riviera up a hill, or accelerated hard, your wipers slowed to a crawl, or even stopped working altogether. On a rainy day in the mountains, Grandpa was out of luck.
What’s really amazing—in hindsight—is that most people probably didn’t even realize it was possible to do better. And this, I think, is a great metaphor for our everyday acceptance of the idiosyncrasies of the human mind. The mind is inarguably impressive, a lot better than any available alternative. But it’s still flawed, often in ways we scarcely recognize. For the most part, we simply accept our faults —such as our emotional outbursts, our mediocre memories, and our vulnerability to prejudice—as standard equipment. Which is exactly why recognizing a kluge, and how it might be improved upon, sometimes requires thinking outside the box. The best science, like the best engineering, often comes from understanding not just how things are, but how else they could have been.

Meet the Author

Gary Marcus is a professor of psychology at New York University and the author of the Norton Psychology Reader.

Actor Stephen Hoye is a graduate of London's Guildhall and a veteran of London's West End. An award-winning audiobook narrator, he has won thirteen AudioFile Earphones Awards and two prestigious APA Audie Awards.

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Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Whoever wrote the preceding review obviously doesn't pay attention.The author was never self-contradictory at all.He said we don't have postal-code memory where every memory has an address like a computer.If evolution had come up with this first then layered contextual memory on top,this would be more efficient.The author then said some people use mnemonics to aid memorization.But this a trick to aid memory and this of course does not mean our memory is optimally designed. How is this in any way contradictory?
Rhi More than 1 year ago
Amusingly enough, the reviewer who complains about the book being 'illogical' explicitly states that s/he hasn't even read it. S/he goes on arguing that the author misunderstands 'intelligent design' (?!), proving once more that every sufficiently illuminating intellectual achievement will have to face the opposition of religious conservatives.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was listening to the BookTV Cspan channel from my porch, while doing my yoga, today. The author of 'Kluge', Gary Marcus was in a bookstore talking about his book. Basically, his book is making the argument that the brain does not have an intelligent design to it, touching on what he calls evolution. Please tell me that there are others who made note of all of his illogical comments with which he is basing his argument on. 'And to top it off, he actually has the argument against his book right in his discussion. For example, he argues that our brain doesn't have a certain memory trait, but then demonstrates that we can exercise it to do just what he says that we can't. Please. I can imagine that his next book might argue the opposite of this book, as though it's just an exercise in the ability to argue any side to a topic. Without naming off all of his contradictory statements, I'd just like to say that, generally, his posit is based on the idea that an intelligent design would be that which a robot encompasses. I don't know of any intelligent design proponent who has argued that being designed as robots was what our creator had intended. 'Beware of 'experts' who's forte is debate.