judith_rich_harris's picture
Independent Investigator and Theoretician; Author, The Nurture Assumption; No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality

True or False: Beauty Is Truth

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," said John Keats. But what did he know? Keats was a poet, not a scientist.

In the world that scientists inhabit, truth is not always beautiful or elegant, though it may be deep. In fact, it's my impression that the deeper an explanation goes, the less likely it is to be beautiful or elegant.

Some years ago, the psychologist B. F. Skinner proposed an elegant explanation of "the behavior of organisms," based on the idea that rewarding a response—he called it reinforcement—increases the probability that the same response will occur again in the future. The theory failed, not because it was false (reinforcement generally does increase the probability of a response) but because it was too simple. It ignored innate components of behavior. It couldn't even handle all learned behavior. Much behavior is acquired or shaped through experience, but not necessarily by means of reinforcement. Organisms learn different things in different ways.

The theory of the modular mind is another way of explaining behavior—in particular, human behavior. The idea is that the human mind is made up of a number of specialized components, often called modules, working more or less independently. These modules collect different kinds of information from the environment and process it in different ways. They issue different commands—occasionally, conflicting commands. It's not an elegant theory; on the contrary, it's the sort of thing that would make Occam whip out his razor. But we shouldn’t judge theories by asking them to compete in a beauty pageant. We should ask whether they can explain more, or explain better, than previous theories were able to do.

The modular theory can explain, for example, the curious effects of brain injuries. Some abilities may be lost while others are spared, with the pattern differing from one patient to another.

More to the point, the modular theory can explain some of the puzzles of everyday life. Consider intergroup conflict. The Montagues and the Capulets hated each other; yet Romeo (a Montague) fell in love with Juliet (a Capulet). How can you love a member of a group, yet go on hating that group? The answer is that two separate mental modules are involved. One deals with groupness (identification with one's group and hostility toward other groups), the other specializes in personal relationships. Both modules collect information about people, but they do different things with the data. The groupness module draws category lines and computes averages within categories; the result is called a stereotype. The relationship module collects and stores detailed information about specific individuals. It takes pleasure in collecting this information, which is why we love to gossip, read novels and biographies, and watch political candidates unravel on our TV screens. No one has to give us food or money to get us to do these things, or even administer a pat on the back, because collecting the data is its own reward.

The theory of the modular mind is not beautiful or elegant. But not being a poet, I prize truth above beauty.