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Berlinski’s “On The Origins of the Mind” lauded by American Scientist

American Scientist Online has posted a nice review of The Best American Science Writing 2005 (Edited by Alan Lightman, Harper Perennial) from the Nov-Dec issue of the magazine, which features CSC senior fellow David Berlinski’s article “On The Origins of the Mind.”

David Schoonmaker, managing editor of American Scientist found Berlinski’s piece to be his favorite, and at the end of his review says this about the piece:

Having devoured the physical-science pieces (nine in all), I came face to face with the anthology’s structure: physical science first, followed by biology, medicine, social sciences and artificial intelligence. Uh-oh. Seventeen more to digest.

Of these, my favorite turned out to be David Berlinski’s “On the Origins of the Mind,” wherein he takes on (or, perhaps more aptly, takes apart) evolutionary psychology. If I were, through some miracle (or catastrophe), to find myself teaching freshman composition, it’s an essay my poor charges would read. Supremely logical–no surprise given that Berlinski has taught philosophy and logic–it is at the same time exceedingly wry. I found myself breaking out in laughter even more often than when reading Jim Holt’s piece.

In brief, Berlinski describes what he refers to as the three similes of evolutionary psychology: that “the human mind is like a computer in the way that it works,” that “the individual human mind is like . . . any other organ of the body in the way that it is created anew in every human being,” and that “the universal human mind — the expression in matter of human nature — is like any other complicated biological artifact in the way that it arose in the human species by means of random variation and natural selection.” Then, taking differential equations as his model (they give one the task of determining “the overall, or global, function from its local rate of change”), Berlinski proceeds to analyze the similes. All three succumb to a variety of logical faults, but a crude summary is that evolutionary psychology’s charge is to determine initial conditions, which it has thus far failed to do. Evolutionary psychologists find themselves in the position of trying to run a differential equation backward. Berlinski comments, “Inverse problems are not in general well posed.”

Evolutionary psychologists may have their rejoinders to Berlinski’s analysis, and I certainly know too little to declare it the definitive put-down. But as sound argumentation and exemplary writing, it has few equals that I’m familiar with.

Robert Crowther, II

Robert Crowther holds a BA in Journalism with an emphasis in public affairs and 20 years experience as a journalist, publisher, and brand marketing and media relations specialist. From 1994-2000 he was the Director of Public and Media Relations for Discovery Institute overseeing most aspects of communications for each of the Institute's major programs. In addition to handling public and media relations he managed the Institute's first three books to press, Justice Matters by Roberta Katz, Speaking of George Gilder edited by Frank Gregorsky, and The End of Money by Richard Rahn.