Review of Marcus’ ‘Kluge’

There’s a short review of Gary Marcus’ new book, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, on The New York Times website. The review, ‘Patch Job’ by Annie Murphy Paul, argues that the book is a good central idea that doesn’t have enough development to carry the weight of every chapter.

Marcus, it seems, has a problem: an appealing and intriguing idea that isn’t quite as big as he claims. To solve it, he reaches for that rhetorical kluge, the straw man, setting up and then sweeping aside the notion that the human mind is infallible.

Apparently, Marcus sets up a series of straw men to knock down — human thought as perfect and infallible — to oppose the kluge (rhymes with ‘huge’) model of the human brain.

I don’t doubt Paul’s critique, but I think that the problem is not that the kluge concept is insufficiently radical. Apparently, there’s just not enough discussion by Marcus of the way in which the body evidences these sorts of less-than-ideal, cobbled together solution. I need to get a copy of the book because I assumed that it would have more than enough material to work with. The demonstration of our ‘kluginess’ is important because it counteracts at least three pernicious steams of thinking about the human body and brain: Creationism, Adaptationism, and certain streams of Modularity thinking.

1) It contrasts with the ‘in God’s image’ belief that humans are perfectly engineered. Obviously, this sort of evidence goes against Creationist malarky. Why would an intelligent and beneficent Creator put the retinas in our eyes in backward? How on earth could an omniscient being not realize that coronary arteries needed to be significantly larger in diameter for the lives that humans would eventually lead (and couldn’t He or She have been kind enough to give us a back-up heart)? And how about knees? If they just bent in a few more directions, a whole range of injuries could be avoided. Etc. etc.

This is an important service of arguing for the bodies’ kluges, but it’s hardly the most important. There’s so much evidence to beat on Creationists with that it’s clear shortage of evidence is not the problem to be addressed. So it’s not the most important service that the kluge concept can render, as far as I’m concerned. Unlike some members of the blogosphere, I don’t think putting the sword to Creationists is really the best use of my intellect — but then again, the school board in my township is not pushing for ‘Intelligent Design’ in local curricula. If you’re in that situation, then maybe showing the profoundly un-intelligent non-designed nature of the body and brain is helpful.

2) More importantly, in my opinion, the ‘kluginess’ of the human body and brain runs counter to certain ‘adaptationist’ streams in the thinking of people who believe that they advocate evolutionary thought, but really engage in a form of Natural Adaptation Design-ism. That is, when someone repeatedly talks about how Natural Selection ‘designed’ such and such organs to do what they are currently doing, I’m always skeptical that the person actually understands how natural selection, evolution, and adaptation occur. That is, the persistent use of the metaphor of ‘design’ when talking about natural selection, in my opinion, is evidence that the speaker still holds to certain teleological conceptions of evolution: evolution designed humans to do what they are now doing, for example.

Rather, the kluge concept highlights that many of the contemporary parts of the brain and body that are used to do things are not well ‘designed’ to do what they are doing, precisely because they were never ‘designed’ in the first place. Body parts and brain functions happened; they arise in development and get bent to do all sorts of things that they could do better if they were specifically designed for the function they accomplish. Kluges are a good antidote to Adaptationism in some versions of evolutionary thought (which I think of as a holdover of theological thinking or an error produced when people anthropomorphize Natural Selection).

3) The kluge-like nature of brain functions also works against strict modularity thinking in the evolutionary psychology, both because evolutionary psychology tends to be Adaptationist, but also because modularity thinking tends to posit overly-well-adapted, overly-autonomous brain ‘modules.’ In fact, although the brain does have many qualities that modularity theorists like Jerry Fodor discuss, the way in which modularity turns into the assumption of special purpose Modules needs to be counter-acted, and the kluge is a great alternative metaphor. For example, the notion of a cobbled together visual system, with many quirks imposed by the way that different parts have arisen and by assembled into a single, anything-but-designed system, helps to explain that system’s limits better than the idea that there is a special Module (often incorrectly read as a specific brain area) to do the various functions.

In other words, kluge is a messy metaphor for a messy set of systems — the body and brain. I’m surprised that Paul finds the idea isn’t ‘big’ enough to pull off a whole book. I’m going to have to read the original book and see what happened.

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

One thought on “Review of Marcus’ ‘Kluge’

  1. What’s wrong with popular science writing? I’d pay for a thrilling adventure through the human brain.

    I’ve already learned so much of the notion that our human brains are partly truly humanoid, partly mammal like, and party reptilian. It may be a rough metaphor, but at least it helps me remember it vividly.

    I wish that every neuroscientists would take a shot at explaining things to the public in a book. They might form the basis of an exciting introductionary course.

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