This book is largely about what psychologist Keith Stanovich sees as the disconnect in the postmodern world between "maximizing genetic fitness and maximizing the satisfaction of human desires." (p. xiii) On the one hand we have the "replicators," the genes that blindly seek only their replication. On the other hand we have the vehicle (the phenotype), i.e., "us," which carries the genes, which Stanovich believes should seek its own happiness. He sees our brain as composed of two overlapping, but sometimes divergent, systems. One, the more primitive, he calls "The Autonomous Set of Systems" (TASS) and the other he calls an "analytic system." He calls this having "two minds in one brain."
The autonomous system is held on a "short leash" by the genes while the analytic system is on a longer leash; that is, TASS reacts to events in the environment almost automatically in close concert with the dictates of the replicators while the analytic system is more removed from innate drives and can analyze situations rationally and can act in terms of what is good for the vehicle rather than what promotes the replication of the genes. Note that these systems usually are in agreement and react to the environment in the same way. Threats to the well-being of the vehicle from predators and other dangers, signal the same avoidance behavior. However, sometimes there is a conflict. The example that Stanovich uses is TASS's need to flirt with the boss's wife, which might increase the replication of the genes, while the analytic system realizes that such behavior probably goes against the best interests of the vehicle (possible loss of job, etc.). Following the counsel of the rational analytic system instead of the urgings of TASS is what Stanovich calls "maximizing goal satisfaction at the level of the whole organism." (p. 64)
The title of the book comes from Richard Dawkins (and indeed this book is written in partial reaction to and in concert with Dawkins's ideas) who called organisms "survival machines" and "gigantic lumbering robots" in his famous opus, The Selfish Gene (1976). Stanovich wants to free us from the dictates of those selfish genes and so has constructed a "robot's rebellion." He believes we can use our rationality (our analytic system) to override the sometimes self-destructive inclinations of the more primitive set of brain systems. Stanovich is preeminently a rationalist and believes that right thought leading to right behavior will lead to a more fulfilling and happier life for the "robots." We need to be on the long leash from the genes, not the short leash, is his idea.
A strong point that Stanovich makes very well is that in the information societies of the modern world many of the talents that served us well in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptiveness in the Pleistocene are "worthless" when (e.g.) trying to use "an international ATM machine with which you are unfamiliar" or when "arguing with your HMO about a disallowed medical procedure." (p. 124) He argues strongly that corporations and governments, through their advertizing and propaganda, have become very good at exploiting blind spots in our more primitive brain systems and getting us to do what is good for them and not necessarily good for us. I think this is correct, and that those of us who can see how the players in the modern economy are trying to use us for their benefit will avoid most of the more obvious traps and thereby increase our standard of living and presumably our chances for happiness.
Stanovich devotes a chapter to criticizing evolutionary psychologists for failing "to develop the most important implication of potential mismatches between the cognitive requirements of the EEA and those of the modern world," as he carefully phrases it on page 131. Nonetheless the psychology presented here is mainly a synthesis of cognitive psychology, brain science and evolutionary psychology and as such represents the latest in our attempt to understand ourselves.
He also devotes a chapter to the effects that another kind of replicator, the meme, has on our lives. I don't have the space to go into his ideas about memes and their implications, but I want to say that from my point of view the word "meme" is an approximate neologism for the word "idea." However, I think that it is a useful coinage and, like Stanovich's mind dualism, facilitates a new way of looking at and talking about how our brains work.
While I think this is an extremely interesting book that goes a long way toward showing us the sort of thinking that characterizes postmodern psychology, I must point out that Stanovich's mind dualism is a construct that, while based on his interpretation of recent findings, is nonetheless just that: a construct that will be refined as time goes by and eventually overturned for a new construct. As always in science we are increasing our understanding and expanding our knowledge as we move toward a final understanding that will most likely always lie tantalizingly in the distance.
on 13 January 2016
Magnificent bibliography/references, but who's the intended audience? Stanovich's populist, would-be ingratiating presence makes this feel two or three times the length it could have been, yet he can slip into language that to the non-scientist is pure jargon (middle para of page 17). Besides the editor, nine people by name are thanked for 'helpful critiques', always a bad sign. [As for its other faults, see my amazon.com review dilating on the philosophy/psychology/psychiatry nexus (if it's allowed to stand in its fully fanged redaction). On second thoughts I'll reproduce it in the comment box below.] For how to do it (ie an intrusive authorial voice one welcomes) see Andrew Brown's In the Beginning Was the Worm (on a different subject, obvs!)