Trevor's Reviews > The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature

The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker
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Aug 25, 2008

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bookshelves: evolution, language, psychology, philosophy, science

It is remarkable how much of modern thought can track its genetic heritage back to Kant. When I studied Kant at uni I was told that there was an entire school of philosophy that was formed on the basis of a poor (mis)translation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason into English. I always liked the idea of that.

It is also nice to hear someone talking about Kant and not talking about ‘the unknowability of the thing in itself’ – often the only bit of Kant anyone knows. One of the things Kant sought to do in his philosophy was to find a way out of the endless debate (war?) between Empiricism (knowledge comes from experience) and Rationalism (knowledge is innate and logic eternal). Kant rejected both of these views and sought a compromise. He put forward that we had to have already existing structures in our minds that allowed us to frame the world and thereby understand it – these already existing structures – a priori categories he calls them – are the lenses we use to bring the world into focus.

This is much the same as Chomsky’s view that we learn language because we have evolved mental pathways that make learning language easy – if not virtually inevitable. Pinker is perhaps the greatest populariser of Chomsky living today. His earlier books – particularly The Blank Slate (ironically titled this, despite him arguing against notions of blank slates) and How The Mind Works - are virtually treatises on the victory of nature over nurture. As such these two have been my least favourite of his books. As a recovering meliorist I still struggle with ideas that fix human nature quite as firmly as I feel Pinker – and oddly enough, even Chomsky – would seem to require it to be fixed.

All the same, his other books, and large parts of this one, make me wish I’d become a Linguist. There is a long and amusing – well, I found it amusing, anyway – discussion about sexual intercourse and the various ways one can refer to it. Basically there are two ways – a series of ‘polite’ forms: they were intimate, made love, (or my current favourite which my daughter told me tonight) they had a marital embrace. (Sorry, I’ll need to pause for a moment while I stop laughing).

The other way one can refer to sex is somewhat less polite. Without using any words that will require asterisks, these might involve verbs such as 'to rut' or 'to nail'. Okay, they are clearly less pleasant than 'to make love' or 'to engage in marital embracing' – but what I liked most about this was his explanation of why one lot are polite and the others less so. Pinker points out that all of the polite forms are intransitive verbs (verbs that don’t take an object and so the act 'just happens', rather than being done) whereas the impolite forms are all transitive – one person does something to someone else. So, I shagged her – is going to be impolite. Now, isn’t that interesting?

There was also a long discussion in the middle about a book I read a couple of years ago called Don’t Think of an Elephant - I really didn’t think too much of that book at the time. It all seemed a bit simple-minded to me - a bit like an advertising man getting into politics. So I was very surprised to see so much space devoted to it here. I think Pinker is right – it is not enough to ‘reframe the debate’ and I also think there is a reality below the fluff of political debate that eventually asserts itself - frame or no frame.

One thing you can say about Pinker is that he has many more thoughts per page than your average book. The fact that I don’t agree with everything he says is hardly a criticism compared to the pleasure I get out of reading him. Sometimes he makes me smile, sometimes I can't help laughing out loud.
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Comments (showing 1-21 of 21) (21 new)

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Helen (Helena/Nell) I love the bit about the transitive and intransitive ways of referring to sexual intercourse. Also I have never heard the term 'to nail' but that isn't to say it isn't current over here. I may have just missed it, and there are new ones all the time. 'getting your hole' is the comic term often used- clearly for men -- and it fits the bill of rudely transitive. I think 'making love', in being intransitive and through the choice of words (involves abstract noun) is cleverly non-visual. It conveys abstract tenderness. As soon as you start visualise coupling it starts to be rude and funny. No elegance about the visual detail whatsoever.

But I would have thought a marital embrace was a hug. I reckon that one is a euphemism. Besides it could be transitive: 'he maritally embraced her and she maritally embraced him'. In the college where I work, students often make up CVs in which some of them still insist (not my advice) on recording their 'marital status'. However, they can't spell marital and it always comes out (a spellcheck doesn't help them here) as 'martial'. Peculiarly appropriate, I always think.

message 2: by Joy H. (last edited Mar 10, 2009 07:58AM) (new)

Joy H. Trevor, you write a great review! I just happened by to check out this book and saw your name among the reviewers. Where did I see your other review? The topic was nature vs nature and the question discussed was: where does talent come from.

Anyway, we're having a little conversation of our own about words.
Perhaps you'd like to join us: ====>

Trevor Yes, Outliers. There was a bit of a flurry around that one again last week.

message 4: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Mar 10, 2009 11:12AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I don't find to Pinker to be the genetic determinist you seem to. I often look to this passage of How The Mind Works for reconfirmation of this:

"But almost everyone misunderstands this theory. Contrary to popular belief, the gene-centered theory of evolution does not imply that the point of all human striving is to spread our genes. With the exception of the fertility doctor who artificially inseminated patients with his own semen, the donor to the sperm bank for Nobel Prize winners, and other kooks, no human being (or animal) strives to spread his or her genes. Dawkins explained the theory in a book called The Selfish Gene, and the metaphor was chosen carefully. People don't selfishly spread their genes, genes selfishly spread themselves. They do it by the way they build our brains. By making us enjoy life, health, sex, friends, and children, the gene buys a lottery ticket for representation in the next generation, with odds that were favorable in the environment in which we evolved. Our goals are subgoals of the ultimate goal of the genes, replicating themselves. But the two are different. As far as we are concerned, our goals, conscious or unconscious, are not about genes at all, but about health and lovers and children and friends."

That seems to be enough to get the point across, but I think this is such a good point that I'll type the next paragraph up as well:

"The confusion between our goals and genes' goals has spawned one muddle after another. A reviewer of a book about the evolution of sexuality protests that human adultery, unlike the animal equivalent, cannot be a strategy to spread genes because adulteres take steps to prevent pregancy. But whose strategy are we talking about? Sexual desire is not people's strategy to progagate their genes. It's people's strategy to attain the pleasures of sex, and the pleasures of sex are the genes strategy to propagate themselves. If the genes don't get propagated, it's because we are smarter than they are. A book on the emotional life of animals complains that if altruism according to biologists is just helping kin or exchanging favors, both of which serve the interests of one's genes, it would not really be altruism after all, but some kind of hypocrisy. This too is a mix up. Just as blueprints don't necessarily specify blue buildings, selfish genes don't necessarily specify selfish organisms. As we shall see, sometimes the most selfish thing a gene can do is build a selfless brain. Genes are a play with in a play, not the interior monologue of the players."

-Steven Pinker, How The Mind Works, pp. 43-44

message 5: by Trevor (last edited Mar 10, 2009 11:42AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Trevor It must be ten years since I read How the Mind Works - I can remember virtually nothing of it. But I do remember that it was a much better book than other books on evolutionary psychology I have had the misfortune to read.

My problems with this theory are many and not really answered in your post or quotes. They are the same problem I have with The Selfish Gene - that genes are at too low a level to account for the meta-structures they are to either determine (as is literally stated in the Daughters book) or influence as is stated in the quote above. I still come down on Gould's side on this debate, rather than Dawkins's - that it isn't genes that reproduce, but plants and animals - and there is no organism that is a single gene.

This is why the meme theory is a confusion of the gene theory, even when presented as 'meme-plex' or whatever the term was for groups of memes. If you have to work quite so hard to get the metaphor to work, perhaps the metaphor isn't actually helping.

We want science to provide us with explanations - and in books like the daughters book that explanation is incredibly simple - everything we do is to replicate and spread our genes. Pinker isn't nearly as silly as this. But in The Blank Slate another book I haven't read since it first came out god knows when - the whole point of the book is to show how strong our genetic predisposition are.

Pinker is even harsher on Just-so stories than I am. I quite enjoyed The Ape that Spoke for example, which he criticises by referring to whales as the cow that swam. He also has nothing good to say about Calvin's Throwing Madonna - which I found interesting for the questions raised, even if the answers presented were a bit easy.

But in the end Pinker is a genetic determinist - he might even be right - but there is no getting over the fact that although we might occasionally be able to outsmart our genes and wear a condom, that does nothing to reduce the fact that the director of the main play is still our genes, and our justifications and rationalisations are more or less a fiction added on top of the real play.

message 6: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Mar 12, 2009 10:01AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I really don't see Pinker saying that there is any singular stratum of existence that is the director of the main play. I gather a messier worldview, a multi-tiered interconnection of a variety of forces, the genetic being important, but not the director of the main play. I mean, the last sentence of the passage I quoted says it quite clearly: "Genes are a play with in a play, not the interior monologue of the players."

Like I said in the comments section of the Daughters book, I think that evolutionary psychology (sociobiology, cognitive ethology, whatever one wants to call it) often gets unfairly maligned on the whole. And as much as there are poorly crafted "just so" stories being propogated by evolutionary theorists, it's worth mentioning that I tend to see a lot of poorly crafted criticism of evolutionary psychology on the whole in which the critic merely exclaims "These are "just so" stories and therefore without scientific merit", then namedrops Gould, Lewontin, Fodor, maligns Wilson, Pinker and Dennett and creates their own little "just so" criticisms of alleged "just so" stories. The knife cuts both ways, is all I'm saying.

Trevor Pinker's point is that the play within the play is the one that makes sense of the apparent play we live.

Like I said, Pinker is harder on just-so stories than I am.

message 8: by Joy H. (new)

Joy H. Trevor wrote: "Yes, Outliers. There was a bit of a flurry around that one again last week."

Oh, right, your book review which I commented on last time was _Outliers_.

I have to be careful not to confuse it with _The Outlanders_ and _Outlander. (lol)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Trevor wrote: "I still come down on Gould's side on this debate, rather than Dawkins's - that it isn't genes that reproduce, but plants and animals - and there is no organism that is a single gene."

Who argues that genes are organisms? They're units of heredity, portions of DNA. But they, like organisms, do reproduce. It seems that this is all that really needs to be known to see that their success or failure to be passed on is affected by the same fundamental mechanisms that cause biological evolution to occur: natural selection and random genetic mutation.

message 10: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Mar 10, 2009 01:18PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio "Of course genes can’t pull the levers of our behavior directly. But they affect the wiring and workings of the brain, and the brain is the seat of our drives, temperaments and patterns of thought. Each of us is dealt a unique hand of tastes and aptitudes, like curiosity, ambition, empathy, a thirst for novelty or for security, a comfort level with the social or the mechanical or the abstract. Some opportunities we come across click with our constitutions and set us along a path in life."

-Steven Pinker,

Trevor You have just said genes reproduce. I think you might be surprised to learn that it is organisms that reproduce, and not individual genes. This is an important point, as the selfish gene metaphor implies individual genes are active in seeking to be replicated - it is a misunderstanding - genes 'replicate' by being the 'last man standing'.

And I think the quote you have provided from Pinker is a rather neat example of my point about the view of Evolutionary Psychology that genes have the fundamental role in forming our characters. They don't pull the levers directly, they just create the foundations of all our desires and aptitudes. Hardly any role at all, in fact...

message 12: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Mar 10, 2009 09:24PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Genes are replicators. They duplicate themselves during mitosis.

"And I think the quote you have provided from Pinker is a rather neat example of my point about the view of Evolutionary Psychology that genes have the fundamental role in forming our characters. They don't pull the levers directly, they just create the foundations of all our desires and aptitudes. Hardly any role at all, in fact..."

No, a deeply important role. I've not been trying to hide this.

Do you deny that genes are responsible for creating our brains? If not, how can one deny that genes have some influence over our thought and behavior? Neurological structure and function determines a lot about what we are capable of thinking and doing in the world. This seems like an obvious fact to me. But again, this doesn't mean we are mere vessels for these selfish genes, but that it's a "play within a play." There are a multitude of "plays" taking place, sometimes in concert, sometimes in discord and so on.

Trevor I really have to go to work - more later

message 14: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Mar 10, 2009 01:53PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I find it amusing that I'm finishing work in an hour. Oh, this big ol' planet...with its time zones and jet lag...

'till I hear from you later.

Trevor We got up to:

Genes are replicators. They duplicate themselves during mitosis.

Now, this is one of the key ideas of The Selfish Gene, but it is also one I really need to take issue with. I’m not going to pretend that I know more about Biology than Dawkins – however, I am prepared to accept Dawkins’s challenge to not bow before authority, even his own. So, in fear and trembling before the great man…

My point is that it is not genes that replicate, but organisms. When we have children we get the whole package in one go, not a bundle of detachable genes. The genes did not get a choice in the replication – they just ended up there. Sex provides a more or less random shuffle of two sets of genes and an organism pops into existence with those various genes in place. If evolution depends on a roll of the dice, sex is that roll.

My understanding of natural selection starts with the fact that there are organisms. These organisms either reproduce asexually or sexually. For those that reproduce sexually there is a shuffling of their genes. Natural selection then operates on those organisms (not their genes) – by whether they live or die, whether they successfully bred or not – and therefore natural selectin operates only at a step removed from the actual genes themselves. The genes are the agents of heredity, but NOT the replicators themselves. The things that ‘replicate’ are the organisms.

My pedantry about this is because people seem to give genes a mystical ability to further their own existence,as if they were willed agents and this they clearly are not. Also, the ‘selfish’ part of Dawkins’s title is anthropomorphic in a way that feeds this confusion.

My other concern is that we seem to live in an age when all things are being attributed to genes. I’ve even heard talk of the ‘homosexual gene’. I would really need a lot of proof for something as complex as human sexuality to be explained away by something that's main function is to code for proteins within a cell.

Do you deny that genes are responsible for creating our brains?

I have no problem accepting that the expression of genes is a major contributing factor in determining that we will have brains. But that is quite a different thing to accepting that genes create or even influence the thoughts that are produced within those brains.

Firstly, we do not even know how genes operate to produce structures like our brains. We also don’t know how brains work. There are many confusions here. We think that because there are books called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain or we hear doctors talk of areas of the brain that are related to various functions that genes must work like little sculptors, moulding the various brain areas so that each ends up with its own specialised function. While you are certainly right to say: Neurological structure and function determines a lot about what we are capable of thinking and doing in the world. It is far from settled that genes play the major role in determining either neurological structure or function.

Firstly, any particular brain cell is as likely as not to die at random during the process of development and maturation – as the brain is developing a large part of the job is done by deleting wayward brain cells on the basis of feedback derived from attempts to use the structures in the real world. As such it would be impossible for genes to ‘code’ for thoughts (I would have thought) given that they can’t even code for where the neural circuits will be once the structure is complete. Secondly, it seems that until the process of myelinisation is complete (and perhaps even after) our brains are remarkably plastic. Until the age of eight when this myelin concrete fixes the brain the circuits are literally still being created by an interaction between the world and the structure of our brains. This process can be called many things, but surely not ‘genetic’.

There is also the fact that brain structures and functions are not located in the brain with the pin-point accuracy that is generally taken to be the case. In fact, most of the areas of the brain one might find marked as being responsible for particular functions actually appear over a range of areas on the brain and those represented on diagrams are, in fact, ‘averages’. A book I read once stated that it is not uncommon for many of the functions generally found on the left side of the brain to actually be performed on the right side of the brain in particular people. The book The Brain that Changes Itself is also deeply concerned with precisely this plastic nature of brain tissue even into later life. You see my point – if the brain is that plastic it is hard to see how genes influence our thoughts in ways evolutionary psychology suggests.

If we can't rely on certain neural structures existing to produce our thoughts - that is, if thoughts can't be adequately explained at the neural level - it is very hard to see that it can be explained at the 'lower', genetic level. Science normally progresses by going to a 'higher' level of abstraction when confronted with such problems - not a lower level.

So, to me, the questions really are:

Can a person have a brain without genes? And the answer is clearly no.

Do genes determine or influence our thoughts? And, to be honest, I’ve no idea – the jury is still very much out on that one. But my gut feeling is that genes are too easy an answer and operate on too low a level.

Can you make a brain without Carbon atoms? Well, no. Does the ratio of Carbon 12 to Carbon 13 atoms in the brain affect how we think? Probably not. And why not? Well, because the atomic level of explanation is probably far too low a level to be relevant to human cognition. Genes are probably more relevant, but if they are relevant, I would need to see what the mechanism is that leads from genes to our thoughts.

If genes do not actually code for literal brain structures at the level that thought occurs – and I’m not sure we have any idea what that level is yet – then how genes influence thought would seem to be a bit of a mystery.

I have to admit that I fundamentally believe that people are capable of changing and making the world a better place – even if that ‘world’ is only the world between their ears. Genes determining thoughts worries me greatly – and so I will need lots of proof that we are quite so fixed (stuck? trapped?) before I will accept genes in this role.

Sorry this post is so long.

message 16: by Manny (last edited Mar 11, 2009 06:18AM) (new)

Manny Genes are replicators. They duplicate themselves during mitosis.

Now, this is one of the key ideas of The Selfish Gene, but it is also one I really need to take issue with.

With all due respect: Dawkins is right and you are wrong. He spends dozens of pages arguing these exact points in The Extended Phenotype, and it's pretty hard to read that and then not agree with him. If you say that organisms are the replicators, you're not using the word "replicator" in its standard, accepted sense.

Do you deny that genes are responsible for creating our brains?

Just because we don't know how genes can influence our thoughts doesn't mean they don't do it. There's a great deal here that we don't understand yet! It seems to me that the productive question to ask is: what empirical evidence can we find which suggests that genes do influence our thoughts? And, IMHO, the answer is: a surprising amount! In fact, so much that it's hard to dismiss the idea. My guess is that we'll find out a lot more about the causal mechanisms over the next 20 years.

Intuitively, I guess the thing that convinces me is all the examples Dawkins likes to quote about complex behaviors that are mostly or completely inherited. Spiders' webs, beavers' dams, bower-birds' nests. And much, indeed MOST courtship behavior does indeed appear to be programmed into the genes. So why exactly would it be odd to have a gene for homosexuality? I don't know if it exists, but I wouldn't be SURPRISED if it turned that there was such a thing.

Trevor I haven't read The Extended Phenotype The Long Reach of the Gene - I'll try to do that next.

message 18: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Mar 11, 2009 10:55AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (I've got to keep this message brief since I'm pretty busy at work.)

Trevor, I'm not trying to deny free will and replace it with genetic determinism, and I don't see Pinker, Dawkins, Dennett et al. doing so either. I don't see anyone saying that human behavior is "fixed" by genes. Rather there's a deeply complex interaction between genes and environmental factors (which are basically incalculably complex in themselves) which I think no one worth taking seriously denies. I agree that there's a lot of layperson misunderstanding of the state of genetic research which one sees often in popular magazines and such with headlines like "Scientists May Have Discovered The Chocolate Eating Gene" and so on. It takes a lot of work to connect a specific gene to a specific anatomical trait, so connecting one to a specific behavioral trait is going to be much more taxing and leave room for much more error and so forth. I guess that I really have a sort of "wait and see" attitude towards behavioral genetics and neuroscience and science generally. What's been discovered in such a relatively short time span regarding the brain and genetics and developmental and behavioral biology is rather amazing and seems to me to be a solid enough foundation to where at this point many of these questions are being more clearly answered as more data can be gathered.

On the subject of free will though, here's Dennett's Edinburgh Lecture on free will in which he draws from Hume, Darwin and Turing and basically gives the overview of his book Freedom Evolves:

I like the way he characterizes the classic philosophical problem of "free will v. determinism."

message 19: by Anthony (new)

Anthony Buckley
First, I enjoyed Trevor's review and all the other comments.

My understanding of Chomsky is that he threw a most interesting spanner into the nature/nurture debate. He said that we were genetically programmed to be able to produce an infinite number of different sentences. Or, to generalize, we are genetically predetermined to be free.

Of course, our genes make us prefer some things more than others (everybody finds bananas nicer to eat than grass); and we find some things easier than others (walking is easier than flying). Nevertheless, more than any other animal, and with a bit of ingenuity and social organization, we can do just what we want. And this is because of our genetic make-up.

And that makes for a very nice paradox. Nature forces us to be free.

message 20: by Oasix21 (new)

Oasix21 Hey Trevor, great review, what books on philosophy, or the mind do you recommend?

Trevor I'm not sure I would recommend books on either, to be honest. Your 'to read' list has lots that would be helpful, I guess, on both subjects.

Personally, I think sociology is much more interesting and worthwhile than either philosophy or books on the mind, per se - I think trying to understand humans by understanding individual humans or, worse still, the genes making up those individuals, is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

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