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Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind

Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind

3.5 2
by Gary Marcus

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How is it that we can recognize photos from our high school yearbook decades later, but cannot remember what we ate for breakfast yesterday? And why are we inclined to buy more cans of soup if the sign says "LIMIT 12 PER CUSTOMER" rather than "LIMIT 4 PER CUSTOMER?" In Kluge, Gary Marcus argues convincingly that our minds are not as elegantly designed as we


How is it that we can recognize photos from our high school yearbook decades later, but cannot remember what we ate for breakfast yesterday? And why are we inclined to buy more cans of soup if the sign says "LIMIT 12 PER CUSTOMER" rather than "LIMIT 4 PER CUSTOMER?" In Kluge, Gary Marcus argues convincingly that our minds are not as elegantly designed as we may believe. The imperfections result from a haphazard evolutionary process that often proceeds by piling new systems on top of old ones—and those systems don’t always work well together. The end product is a "kluge," a clumsy, cobbled-together contraption. Taking us on a tour of the essential areas of human experience—memory, belief, decision making, language, and happiness—Marcus unveils a fundamentally new way of looking at the evolution of the human mind and simultaneously sheds light on some of the most mysterious aspects of human nature.

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

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

Meet the Author

Gary Marcus is a professor of psychology at New York University and director of the NYU Infant Language Learning Center. Marcus received his Ph.D. at age twenty-three from MIT, where he was mentored by Steven Pinker. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Newsday, the Los Angeles Times, and other major publications. He lives in New York.

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Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Brainylainy More than 1 year ago
Yes, his ideas are interesting, but not convincing. I have written three blog posts about this book's claims on my blog "smarthotoldlady" on the "blogspot" domain
Anonymous More than 1 year ago