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Steven Pinker's Cheesecake for the Mind
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Steven Pinker’s Cheesecake for the Mind

In How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker offers a splendidly fluent and lucid survey of evolutionary psychology. Pinker propounds the view that the mind has evolved under the shaping pressure of natural selection and that it has developed a number of mental “modules”—chunks of cognitive software—designed to solve specific adaptive problems. Apart from the sense organs, these postulated modules include adaptations for understanding arithmetic, logic, language, physical objects and forces, natural kinds (plants and animals), other human minds, kinship, social status relations, sexual behavior, parent-child relations, and the sense of individual identity. Evidence for the existence of such modules derives from an overlapping array of disciplines, from theoretical biology, behavioral genetics, cognitive and developmental psychology, comparative anthropology, animal ethology, experimental psychology, neurobiology, and endocrinology. Though Pinker does not present himself as an original thinker—in this work he is but a popularizer of an unusually high order—all this information is organized into an impressively coherent body of ideas. 1

The inexorable logic of the adaptationist program requires that evolutionary psychology assume the position of a matrix discipline within the field of liberal education. From the adaptationist perspective, psychology is rooted in biology, and all cultural studies, including both the social sciences and the humanities, are rooted in psychology. Pinker formulates this logic with characteristic concision: “The geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously wrote that nothing in biology [End Page 478] makes sense except in the light of evolution. We can add that nothing in culture makes sense except in the light of psychology. Evolution created psychology, and that is how it explains culture” (p. 210).

Pinker’s voluminous bibliography gives ample evidence that a large cadre of evolutionary scientists are already striving to make good on such claims for a wide range of topics in the social sciences. Within the humanities, far fewer people have been at work and the program of research has been less clearly laid out. Drawing a parallel with the colonization of North America at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, we can identify the social sciences with the populous eastern seaboard and the humanities with the far western territory. However manifest the destiny, the continent remains to be mapped. 2

Pinker’s disciplinary home base is in cognitive psychology and linguistics. (He is head of cognitive neuroscience at MIT.) To illustrate and decorate his text, he has collected a substantial number of relevant quotations from literature, but there is no evidence that his familiarity with most of the works he quotes extends very far beyond the quotations. His literary taste and judgment seem those of an undergraduate who is extraordinarily bright but who is much more sensitive to computers than to poems, plays, or novels. Nonetheless, conscientiously seeking to vindicate the scope of his title, Pinker ventures to situate literature, theoretically, within the general map of evolutionary psychology.

Pinker poses a question that is basic for all mental operations within the evolutionary framework—the question of adaptive function. Displaying an excellent intuitive capacity for seizing on apposite commonplace, he identifies two obvious purposes of literature: instruction and entertainment, the utile and dulce of Horatian lore. The first of these, he supposes, might have some genuine adaptive value. Literature, like social gossip, teaches us about the games people play and prepares us to enter into such play. “Life is like chess, and plots are like those books of famous chess games that serious players study so they will be prepared if they ever find themselves in similar straits” (p. 542). Knowledge might be adaptive, but the pleasure afforded by art, Pinker thinks, is merely a non-adaptive exploitation of adaptive sources of pleasure. The arts respond to “a biologically pointless challenge: figuring out how to get at the pleasure circuits of the brain and deliver little jolts of enjoyment without the inconvenience of wringing bona fide fitness increments from the harsh world” (p. 524). In this respect, literature and the other arts would work in the same way as alcohol, drugs, and [End Page 479] rich desserts. Hence Pinker’s suggestion that “music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots...