Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works might well be subtitled “And the emotions too.” I think it’s one terrific book. It comes at you with a barrage of insights and connections about humans and evolution that can feel intoxicating. It stirs up the nature-nurture controversy with a blender. It does not see you as you almost certainly see yourself. And it doesn’t hurt that it is sometimes very funny.
Despite the book’s title, Pinker talks more about emotions than about the mind itself. He sees them working together. The mind, he says, is computational: it processes information. Much of the information that it processes is from the body’s biological systems. Emotions are units, modules, that use this bodily information to take direct steps—fear, anger, hunger, lust, egotism, empathy—that will promote survival and reproduction.
Humans, Pinker says, are not, as we often believe, divided into thoughts and feelings that work against each other.
The emotions are adaptations, well-engineered software modules that work in harmony with the intellect and are indispensable to the functioning of the whole mind. The problem with the emotions is not that they are untamed forces or vestiges of our animal past; it is that they were designed to propagate copies of the genes that built them rather than to promote happiness, wisdom, or moral values. We often call an act ‘emotional’ when it is harmful to the social group, damaging to the actor’s happiness in the long run, uncontrollable and impervious to persuasion, or a product of self-delusion. Sad to say, these outcomes are not malfunctions but precisely what we would expect from well-engineered emotions. (Kindle location 7688)
So the good news is that our at times perverse, destructive emotions do not mean that something is wrong with us. But the bad news is that our emotional acts are more deeply engrained in us than are our searches for happiness, wisdom, and virtue.
So are we doomed by these emotion-building genes to travel in directions we don’t always want to go, to get carried away just when we want to stay cool and collected? Pinker addresses this issue often, here in a discussion of love:
The confusion comes from thinking of people’s genes as their true self, and the motives of their genes as their deepest, truest, unconscious motives. From there it’s easy to draw the cynical and incorrect moral that all love is hypocritical. That confuses the real motives of the person with the metaphorical motives of the genes. Genes are not puppetmasters; they acted as the recipe for making the brain and body and then got out of the way. (8342)
I like the recipe metaphor. As I take it, genes are like the list of the ingredients and the steps for making a cake, but the flavor and texture of the cake itself is quite different from that sheet of instructions.
But aren’t emotions, if the genes have built them to keep us alive, quite inflexible? Our own emotional core might not change much in our life time, but in species-time, the story is different.
Might the software for the emotions be burned so deeply into the brain that organisms are condemned to feel as their remote ancestors did? The evidence says no; the emotions are easy to reprogram. Emotional repertoires vary wildly among animals depending on their species, sex, and age. Within the mammals we find the lion and lamb. Even within dogs (a single species) a few millennia of selective breeding have given us pit bulls and Saint Bernards. (7721)
Pinker, in conclusion, tells us about ourselves in ways we may have difficulty recognizing. Modules and systems fine-tuned to an ancient past may seem non-human and even anti-human. But we can certainly work with such concepts once we’re familiar with them. We can absorb how science depicts the machinery of our emotions while we are inquiring thoughtfully about the meanings of our lives. Or, to put it another way, we can come to understand our recipe while we ponder what it is like to be the cake.
For more on the man, the book, and the debate, here is a lively and helpful article.