Featured Book Review: Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind by Gary Marcus

But, What do I know?

Perhaps for sake of utility, a notional separation of the corporal activities traditionally divided into mind and body has practical benefits. For instance, the distinction supports eschewing a podiatrist for treatment of your visceral fear of breakfast cereal. But ultimately, books such as Kluge, by Gary Marcus keep us in check when we forget ourselves and we refer to the process of thinking as outside the framework of neurology.

      Grounding the argument is Marcus’ focus on the concept of vestigiality. In comparative physiology, students are taught vestigial elements such as the nictitating membrane in man, floating leg bones in whales, and such that remain because (somewhat simplistically) the benefit of their removal is not greater than the cost of their presence. In other instances, the happenstance of biology leaves us with apparently shoddy craftsmanship—an inferior spine for walking upright, a vagus nerve much longer than necessary.

      The idea of reminding us that vestigial elements remain in thinking is brilliant—a paramount consideration for many fields of study and downright fun to ponder.

      Problems: Kluge begins with a poor explanation of the vestigial concept. If not for an Evolutionary background, I may have missed the point. Second: Marcus initially cites poor examples. For instance his web recommendation of “change blindness” by Derren Brown is suspect. If Marcus had researched the man more thoroughly, he would have seen Brown was a showman and not a behaviorist. Another poor example is his personal anecdote regarding a star of his favorite TV show. His conclusions smack close of the psychologist’s version of a “Just So Story.” Such references cause the reader to challenge Marcus’ other citations, giving the impression many of his experiments are mere college-level insights, and not strong research. Initially, I was left slightly more than skeptical about Marucs’ data, and wondered if Marcus himself wasn’t subject to belief-momentum, overly ambitious toward seeing that which supported his point instead of seriously scrutinizing the source.

      Plod forward, however. It gets better.  As I said, the ultimate reasoning is not only sound, but paramount toward an accurate understanding of behavior. In the end, Kluge is one more nail in the coffin of the mind/body dichotomy. The book is brief enough to read just for a foundational understanding of vestigial behavior/thinking. In the later chapters, research citations and clarifications seem to be stronger. If Kluge were a musical piece it would end with a muscular coda, and the audience would be quite pleased … as long as they didn’t walk out while the artist was tuning his instrument.

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