Minds Make Societies

How Cognition Explains the World Humans Create

[Amazon Link]

Another book I can't quite recall why I put on the get-at-library list. But I did (ILL from Boston College, thanks). And I regret to say, it wasn't for me.

The author, Pascal Boyer, is an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, now teaching at Washington U in St. Louis. His goal here is to offer evolution-based explanations for the puzzling behavior of human belings, around the globe and over history.

The main part of the book is organized around various questions. For example:

  • Why are humans so good at cooperating in small groups, but fiercely (and sometimes violently) competitive with humans outside their group?
  • We are pretty good at accumulating information quickly and using it to make good decisions about our future. But also common are various forms of group irrationality: moral panics, investment bubbles, socialism. Why is that?
  • Why is modern religion such a recent development in human history?
  • We like to think that our current traditions and laws involving family life are "natural", based on our human nature. But, given the sweep of history, are they really?
  • We seem to have notions of "fairness" and "trade" built into our brains, but just and prosperous societies have (again) only relatively recently developed. Is that just a big hairy accident, likely doomed to self-destruction?
  • Can we, with our limited intellectual powers, claim to "understand" societies at all? They're devilishly complex!

With regard to the religion one, I found myself asking: if God called Abraham only around 4,000 years ago, what was He up to for the previous 200,000 years of mankind's history? Just not paying attention? How does my local pastor explain that, anyway?

Anyway: These could be fascinating topics. Prof Boyer does his level best to make them dull.

Well, that's unfair. Probably a more accurate way of putting it: he doesn't write down to my level. Sample sentence, plucked at random (page 228):

So the force dynamics that come to mind when we think about power relations, those notions of pushing and pulling, of force and resistance, are only very awkward ways of representing large-scale interactions that are vastly more complex, and indeed too complex for our conscious representations.

Yeah, well, maybe. I got the (probably unfair) idea that Prof Boyer wrote this in French, got someone else to translate it into English.

Anyway: it's one of those "I looked at every page" books. And I learned stuff, but probably missed a lot too.