This reatively short and very entertaining book packs a message that can change the way we look at people and the minds that make us who we are. Robert Kurzban is an evolutionary psychologist. And in one long breath, here is his message: the mind is modular and it makes no sense to talk about “you” or “me” because there is no conscious, single, controlling “you” or “me” running the show inside our heads, and when”you” and “me” talk, it is basically my “press secretary” talking to your “press secretary,” one of many modules of our mind, modules that act with their own rhyme and reason and don’t necessarily talk to each other and aren’t necessarily aware of each other, but do act in a way that is in accordance to the goals for which the module was genetically selected for. Got that? Basically, it means that there are lots of parts of “you” and they do what they were designed (selected) to do, usually without regard for other parts of “you.” Behavioral inconsistencies can be explained through understanding this modular specialization structure of the brain. Deep down, I think we already know this. This is why people on diets lock their fridge doors at night, why George Reckers and Elliot Spitzer walk(ed) a different walk from their public talk, etc. But Kurzban’s theory–and he repeatedly states that it is an exploratory theory– is a way of conceptualizing how the mind can manage to be so blatantly contradictory, and as such it has great explaining power. People can hold very strong beliefs, impossibly contradictory beliefs, often for no reason. People can say one thing and do another, they can waffle between patience and impulsivity, have overinflated and unrealistic views of themselves (almost everyone, for example, believes themselves to be an above-average driver), and hold others to high moral principles that they prefer not to apply to themselves. Seen through Kurzban’s evolutionary psychology spectacles, the selfish little modules trying to gain advantage any way they can form a logical–if depressingly dispicable–portait of the organisms we are.
Aside from being an interesting and entertaining read, this hand-grenade of a book may eventually shake a lot of long-held belief fruit out of the trees that social psychologists and behavioral economists have been feeding from for years. For example, the notion that motivation and preferences are fairly constant (two that have long bothered me personally), are debunked pretty thoroughly here. Quoting LIchtenstein and Slovic (2006b): preferences “…are labile, inconsistent, subject to factors we are unaware of, and not always in our own best interests. Indeed, so pervasive is that lability that the very notion of a ‘true’ preference must, in many situations, be rejected.” What this means, is that things like motivation and preferences are more complex than we think they are now; different modules of the brain work differently “depending on context, state, and history,” and they–“we”– aren’t aware of it. So instead of constant motivations or preferences held by an individual, we should probably think of people as collections of independently-acting modules, each module “…designed to bring about certain states or affairs.” Motivation is a design to bring about a goal, but it is better conceptualized as a bunch of design goals located in a bunch of modules. The L2 Self may be not much more than a handful of sand. Actually, I don’t think the implications of Kurzban’s theory go that far, but at the least, we have to acknowledge that we are only looking at a small part of an individual whenever we look at him, no matter how closely.