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The Accidental MindReview - The Accidental Mind
How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God
by David J. Linden
Belknap Press, 2007
Review by Konrad Talmont-Kaminski
Sep 11th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 37)

Neuroscience has gone a long way to opening up the old behaviorist black box. So much so that Linden is able to end his book with an example tracing the causal links from repeated stimulus, through various neural connections, to the final conditioned response: something that would be unimaginable during Skinner's time. In the preceding pages Linden introduces the fascinating work that has been done in the last few decades towards understanding how the brain works and how it underpins mental functions. Throughout the book, Linden's style is breezy, making the book a surprisingly easy read for the non-expert reader that it is aimed at. One of the points the book makes is that memory is tied to emotions and Linden certainly has learned this lesson, managing to explain the basic facts of how the brain works while keeping 'the audience' engaged emotionally with the topic. Indeed, his chapter on sex looks at human proclivities with the sharp eye of a practiced comic, all the while actually explaining the science. I can't help but think that Linden is one hell of a dinner party guest.

Having said how much fun the book is it is also important to appreciate the role a book like Linden's has to play. Neuroscience is making big strides in helping us to understand the part of the universe that is of greatest significance to us. Its basic results have far-reaching consequences within the broadly construed sciences of cognition, as well as within the general public sphere. As such, they should be known to those who set policy -- such policy being all too often based upon naïve views of human nature. Also, they should be familiar to all who would claim to investigate the human mind. Certainly, I should have been glad to have had the benefit of reading Linden's book during my undergraduate philosophy studies: many senior philosophers who shall remain unnamed would likewise profit from perusing it.

Considering how much I enjoyed the book and how useful I found it I wish that I could be unequivocally positive about it. However, I found it to have a fairly serious short-coming: the problem is due to Linden's effort to write more than just an introduction to neuroscience. He tries to combine this with an argument showing how what we know about the brain undermines the kinds of views that are put forward by the fundamentalist religious right that is currently powerful in the States. This is one too many balls to juggle for even as adroit a writer as Linden.

The central driving idea of Linden's book is that the brain is a kludge, the result of what Wimsatt, in his recent book Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings, calls the working of "nature as backwoods mechanic and used-parts dealer". This comes through very powerfully in Linden's numerous examples of how evolutionarily earlier features of the brain are retained, with later additions finding ways to work with or around them, ways that are less optimal than what a total redesign would condone. The implications of such facts for creationist ideologies are discomforting for their proponents to say the least. Were it not enough that such design casts doubt on the competence of the alleged designer, Linden suggests that the human propensity for religious beliefs could be due to a particular kludge in the human brain. Having reached this conclusion, Linden reveals that this is where his seemingly leisurely jaunt through neuroscience was meant to deal us to all along. Indeed, Linden even provides a map -- a step-by-step diagram showing how this conclusion is reached. I would be the last person to object to being led to such conclusions yet object I must.

On the one hand, it feels unfair to the reader that Linden does not explain more clearly where he is taking them at the start -- otherwise they may be left feeling like a very personable taxi driver had just taken them for a ride to a part of town they'd rather not visit. The turns of phrase that previously were so charming now sound forced and out of place: his breezy patter -- most appropriate for a lively introduction -- undermines the more serious matter. While I understand Linden's aim given the very difficult position of scientists such as him within the United States at this point in time, I do not even think that such an approach is effective. It would be better to have taken the readers most of the way to the conclusion he wishes to reach and to let them make the final leap of imagination themselves.

On the other hand, in attempting to make his point about religion Linden ends up outside of his area of expertise, losing his sure-footedness in the process. Whereas he had been able to bring in lively examples from the neurosciences whenever he'd needed them, Linden tries to go it alone when dealing with issues in philosophy or the cognitive study of religion. This is evident in that, where for previous chapters Linden's book suggests both general and scientific further reading, his suggestions for the final two chapters are limited to popular science books of varying usefulness. Unfortunately, in effect, Linden's analysis suffers. For example, he feels it adequate to claim that science and religion have what Stephen Jay Gould, in his similarly unsatisfactory analysis, called non-overlapping magisteria. While the position is attractive emotionally, in that it allows everyone to get on with what they were doing previously, it is intellectually insupportable: its implication essentially being a God of the Gaps which have not yet been investigated by science. Linden makes similar avoidable missteps in talking about faith and the effect the constructive nature of memory and perception has upon our claims to have access to reality. Finally, given the significance of the constraints of evolved brain design for Linden's position, his analysis would profit from being informed by the bounded reasoning approach to cognition that Wimsatt's previously mentioned book exemplifies. However, none of these philosophical issues are central to his overall argument. What is central is his suggestion that religion may be a byproduct of a kludge.

Linden starts the chapter on his theory of religion by mentioning a nightmare in which he ends up being ripped apart by crawfish incensed by his wild speculations. He would be better armed to defend himself against these crawfish if he showed an awareness of the cognitive studies of religion that reaches beyond Pascal Boyer's admittedly significant popular book on the topic. A good start for him, or his readers, would be Joe Bulbulia's 2004 review of the area in Biology and Philosophy -- Bulbulia even seems to share Linden's wicked sense of humour. All this might sound like I am berating Linden for stepping outside of the magisterium of his own discipline. I should be the last to cast stones, however, having trespassed against a number of disciplines in my own research. Nor do I think that Linden's central theorem is essentially undermined by these shortcomings. Instead, the problem is that Linden's uncharacteristic lack of mastery of this material unnecessarily weakens his argument: much as does his attempt to present in the form of an introduction what is actually a sustained argument to a conclusion that is bound to be controversial.

 

© 2007 Konrad Talmont-Kaminski

 

Konrad Talmont-Kaminski was educated in Australia and Canada but is working in Europe, at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Vienna, Austria, and at the Marie Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin, Poland. His work has focused upon understanding rationality from a pragmatist, naturalist perspective. It is in that context that he is examining superstition as a natural, cognitive phenomenon.


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