Darwin's dangerous idea : evolution and the meanings of life

by Daniel Clement Dennett

Paper Book, 1995




New York : Simon & Schuster, c1995.


In this groundbreaking and very accessible book, Daniel C. Dennett, the acclaimed author of Consciousness Explained, demonstrates the power of the theory of natural selection and shows how Darwin's great idea transforms and illuminates our traditional view of our place in the universe. Following Darwinian thinking to its logical conclusions is a risky business, with pitfalls for everybody. Creationists and others who reject evolution are not the only ones to fall into the traps. Many who accept the validity of Darwin's conclusions hesitate before their implications and distort his theory, fearful that it is politically incorrect or antireligious, or that it robs life of all spirituality. Dennett explains the scientific theory of natural selection in vivid terms, and shows how it extends far beyond biology.… (more)

Media reviews

Daniel Dennett's fertile imagination is captivated by the very dangerous idea that the neo-Darwinian theory of biological evolution should become the basis for what amounts to an established state religion of scientific materialism. Dennett takes the scientific part of his thesis from the inner
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circle of contemporary Darwinian theorists: William Hamilton, John Maynard Smith, George C. Williams, and the brilliant popularizer Richard Dawkins.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member skholiast
I am far from agreeing with everything Dennett says, even in this book, but "if you read just one book on evolution...", this is my vote. He paints the picture in its starkest terms, and is very, very, very smart. Also a fine writer, and funny. He has a gift for side-stepping debates that have
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become jargon-laden. This means you have to think when you read him, because the terms of the discussion are not those of the last seven articles you read; you have to do the translating as you go. Dennett's distinction between cranes and skyhooks alone is a meme that will (I hope) live a long and happy life. Note though, he is a philosopher and not strictly speaking an evolutionary biologist. For my money this is perfectly fine, and Dennett goes out of his way to get his scientific street-cred, so it does not justify any slams of the book; but readers might want to know what the author's bona fides are.

As to his polemics: Despite his anti-religious aniumus, Dennett is for the most part more even-handed here than in some of his later more expressly antireligious work. This is not to say that his engagements with religion, or ethics, or even philosophy of mind, in this book are of the same level of sophistication as his accounts of evolutionary theory; but he does a fine job of laying out the implications of a hard-core Darwinist position, in a manner that is solid, careful, and hard-hitting. As has been noted by other reviewers, Dennett includes some swipes at Stephen Jay Gould which might seem distracting to one not privy to the background. I suspect much of it hinges upon Gould's notion of "non-overlapping magisteria," the idea that science does not have the final say in matters of values, ethics, the arts, and indeed in metaphysics and religion; but that neither can any other discourse legitimately trespass on science's grounds. This means, for instance, that whether the Pope or William Jennings Bryan likes it or not, science has the last word as to whether the Earth rotates the sun or vice-versa, and as to whether homo sapiens and the bonobo chimp share a common ancestor; but that science has nothing to say about whether it is right or wrong to pick your neighbor's pocket or cut his throat. Dennett clearly disagrees both with the notion of circumscribing science's application (he argues that there is indeed a pertinent evolutionary ethics), and he more or less accused Gould of hypocrisy and pandering to religion, pulling his punches. I find this lamentable because it (to my mind) needlessly over-states the alleged incompatibility between the findings of science and those discourses by which we ask more ultimate questions; and there will be plenty on the other side to take him at his word. That Dennett does *not* pull his punches thus turns out to be a bit of an ambiguous virtue. But the force with which he states his position clearly indicates what Dennett feels to be the stakes. Even if, like me, you disagree, the book will force you to make clear to yourself what those stakes are.
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LibraryThing member JollyContrarian
This fascinating, difficult book has a simple premise: evolution describes a colossal series of individual, algorithmic steps, none of which is accompanied by any specific intention or intelligence.

At first glance this proposition seems non-controversial but, as Dennett makes very clear, the
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implications of this theory being right are anything but: once you accept this fundamental premise, the ground under certain positions on a number of other hoary old philosophical chestnuts begins to give way:

* God - if there's no need for intentionality or intelligence at any point in the evolutionary process, then as Oolon Colluphid might say, "That about wraps it up for God" - there's no room at the inn (ahem) for *any* God (omnipotent or otherwise) as a creator of the universe, and since religious claims to ethical validity derive from God's status as both the creator and "ruler" of the universe, they too evaporate in a puff of logic;

* Mind/AI - if we evolved from organisms which do not have any form of consciousness, and that process did not itself involve intentionality or intelligence (until the arrival of human intelligence, which Dennett would describe as a "crane") then any account of consciousness *must* be wholly explicable in physical terms, and (though Dennett doesn't say this) it must be conceptually possible, with the correct technology (which we may of course never have), to synthesise not just the functional equivalent of consciousness, but actual consciousness itself.

This second point (but not the extrapolation) is the central thesis of Dennett's equally excellent (and difficult) book "Consciousness Explained". In many ways, I wish I had read Darwin's Dangerous Idea first, for the premises on which Dennett's account of consciousness are based are set out here in a great deal of depth. I don't think I fully "got" Consciousness Explained first time, so I am going to read it again now. After I've read a cheap and trashy thriller first, as a treat for being so good.

As you progress through Darwin's Dangerous Idea, having unequivocally lost the ideas of God and a "soul", a further order of things which are very central to civilisation as we know it start to collapse as well, most notably the ideas that there are external concepts of "right" and "wrong" at all.

Throughout the first three quarters of the book, Dennett is thoroughly persuasive, with the assistance of Richard Dawkins' wonderful idea of the "meme" (which is a great meme in itself); the idea which reproduces itself and mutates within and between human brains: Just as organisms do, "fit" memes find currency and reproduce with ease; and "weak" memes aren't able to occupy enough brains, and eventually die out.

It is analogies like these that display the power of the idea: the Darwinist meme has outgrown biology and is finding application (for which read: reproducing and mutating) in epistemology, ethics, sociology, economics and pretty much every other academic discipline when you stop to think about it. The implications for this, as a unificatory theory of everything, are immense.

Having said all this, Darwin's Dangerous Idea is not without its faults.

At times Dennett is needlessly provocative, and skirts dangerously close to ad hominem arguments in his dismissal of certain competing commentators, most notably Stephen Jay Gould. By being so he gives the impression of not being dispassionate (apologies, by the way, for the double negative, but I mean something different to "passionate"!) about the subject at hand. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it leads a sceptical reader to question how fairly opposing arguments may have been set out: unless one has read the competing works (and I certainly haven't) for all we know, Dennett may be rendering straw men or at least underselling the points lined up against him.

More curiously, having already picked fights with the religious, the spiritualists and the Marxist biologists, rather late in the piece Dennett wades into the ethics debate. He might have been better advised to leave morality for another time. His final two chapters purport to apply the "universal acid" of Darwinism to ethics. You would expect this to be a rout, but after noting (quite correctly) that between them such great minds as Hobbes, Mill, Kant and Rawls failed utterly to formulate any sort of method for adjudicating right and wrong, Dennett reaches not the obvious conclusion that there is no such thing (which seems to me to be the plain implication of everything the evolutionary theory stands for), but instead puts failures of moral judgment down to insufficient information at the time of judgment formation (one never knows *all* the facts, so one can't be expected to get it right) and ventures the suggestion that there is an evolutionarily explicable moral code, but we just can't always access it.

It is not clear why he even thinks this is necessary, especially since the very lesson of evolutionary biology is that it's quite possible for something extremely clever to come about by a concatenated series of not very clever steps. If this is enough to get humans from protoplasm to cave man, I couldn't fathom what Dennett's interest was in defending the notion that from cave man forwards, humans have needed some externally derived conduct code, especially when the one thing which is undeniable from recorded history is that that competing civilisations have never progressed their cause by being nice to each other. The final two chapters in my view can therefore be skipped without significant loss.

All in all, and notwithstanding these minor grumbles, I think this is an extremely valuable and thought-provoking book.
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LibraryThing member hailelib
Dennett is a philosopher with interests in evolutionary biology and cognitive studies. Since I haven't read much philosophy and only a little of the evolutionary studies he cites, this book was a slow and sometimes difficult read. I do feel that he was persuasive that he is on the right track but
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he cheerfully admits that not everyone in the field agrees. Dennett argues that evolution is a done deal and that there are no 'skyhooks' (supernatural elements) needed to get from just formed earth to men asking questions about how they got here. He can also inject humor into his dialog with the reader.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
A lucid explanation and critique of the main ideas of Charles Darwin. The topics considered are wide-ranging from the origin of species to biology, the nature of mind, mathematics, meaning, and more. I found this exploration of ideas both invigorating and challenging to my understanding of
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evolution and the meaning of life.
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LibraryThing member feistyscot
Say what you will about the shameless adaptationism at the heart of the book, it's brilliant. The range and depth of the ideas Dennett discusses is huge, yet the book coheres. There's more than enough high-grade philosophy for philosophically-minded readers, yet Dennett's grasp of the science is
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more than adequate for his argument to impress and challenge practicing biologists and zoologists. One can come away from this book with an importantly new view of the world even without accepting the "fundamentalism" underpinning Dennett's argument.
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LibraryThing member haig51
Darwin's Dangerous Idea could, in fact, be changed to Turing's Dangerous Idea, as this book is as much about computation and the algorithmic view of the world as it is about evolution. Dennett frames evolution as an algorithm that blindly selects genotypes based on the phenotypical performance of
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organisms within fitness landscapes. Adaptation occurs not only from this selection process, but, as complexity science has discovered, from constraints on the self-organization processes that determine morphogenesis and evolutionary stable strategies. This refinement of Darwinian thinking does not replace Darwin's original discovery, it enhances it.

The reason why this idea is labeled dangerous is because it completely flips around the previous philosophical and religious understanding of how nature is created. Before Darwin, the view was that of a top-down ladder, starting from God who designs the world purposefully, and continuing down to humans with minds, animals without minds, inert matter, chaos, and the void. After Darwin, this rigid ladder is replaced with a bottom-up tree that doesn't start with any mind designing things teleologically at all, but with blind and dumb algorithms ratcheting up complexity teleonomically. For most people this inversion of what seems like the intuitive natural order of things is both hard to fathom and shocking in its implications. Dennett calls this algorithmic evolutionary worldview a universal acid, it penetrates everything we see around us, spilling over into every area without being able to be contained.

Dennett's purpose for writing the book, as he states in the introduction, is to actually show why Darwin's idea is not really all that dangerous once you really understand it. People who fear that this idea destroys their cherished beliefs may have reason to find it dangerous, as it does invalidate the old traditional ways of viewing our world. However, fears that this new idea also necessarily implies a hopeless nihilism and a breakdown of society are misplaced, as long as you can overcome the initial aversion to the new order of things and embrace this way of looking at the world.

Oddly enough, the challenge that proper Darwinian thought and its implications faces today is not so much the outright denial of evolution by religious and anti-scientific people (though they are a problem), but the misunderstandings and misrepresentations of evolution by thinkers who believe in evolution but deny crucial aspects of it. One wrong perspective is represented by Steven J. Gould, who famously stated that if we ran the tape of life over and over again evolution would never recreate similar biospheres and societies that we have come to see today. Dennett takes him to task, showing how his idea of spandrels do not invalidate orthodox darwinism at all, that the algorithm of evolution will consistently find the 'good tricks' in design space and converge on familiar forms, even though historical contingencies make exact repeats of specific timelines untenable. Another flawed perspective is represented by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who thought of evolution in religious terms and wrote on how evolution confirms Christianity through an updated elon vital guided by the mind of God. Dennett again shows how this denial of blind bottom-up algorithmic processes leads to wrong conclusions. I must admit, however, that I think Teilhard's overall vision is more accurate in its overview of how evolution unfolds while being wrong in the details, whereas Gould's details are more precise and inline with scientific thought, but his conclusions are completely wrong. Lastly, Dennett puts to rest the criticisms of what Richard Dawkins popularized as the gene-eye view of evolution. People have either misunderstood what 'selfish genes' actually means or have misconstrued this idea to mean that since natural selection only cares about what is good for the individual organism, or more precisely, the genes of that organism, than that automatically implies that selfishness and individualism rules the land. Again, Dennett vanquishes these wrongheaded criticisms and defends the modern synthesis of neodarwinism, selfish genes and all.

Finally, we get to the part of the book that deals with the implications of this dangerous (or not so dangerous after all) idea upon society and humanity. People naturally want to view humanity as separate from the rest of the world, a divine creation that makes us special and not just another part of nature. The reality s that we are a part of nature, evolved from and with the rest of the biosphere, but like Darwin said, there is grandeur to this view of life. We share a common ancestry with all of life on earth, one big tree of life that starts out dumb and blind and which eventually leads to culture and society. What sets humanity apart from the rest of the biosphere is our culture, a new evolutionary fitness landscape where memes, a term coined by Dawkins to represent units of culture, play out the evolutionary algorithm within our minds and within our societies. Our symbolic language capabilities, and the memes that arise of of them, while being based on and a continuation of our genes, give us an opportunity to transcend the biological limitations that genes set for us by default. This last idea, again, faces challenges from scientists who are onboard with darwinism but deny its ability to explain language or higher cognitive capabilities. This perspective is represented by Noam Chosmky, who pioneered the study of linguistics but resists the idea that it can be explained through natural selection, and by Roger Penrose, who disagrees with the view that computational explanations of consciousness can account for reasoning and creativity. Once again, Dennett tirelessly champions the neodarwinian account of these ideas and shows how 'meaning' can be formed, language and creativity included, from the algorithmic process of evolution.

I've read several of Dennett's books, but I found this one to be my favorite so far.
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LibraryThing member iayork
Complex and Entertaining: While Dennett comes off, at times, sounding pompous and headstrong, that may simply be because he is, in my opinion, correct about certain aspects of the human mind's ability to cope with conflicting beliefs. My personal religious beliefs aside, I do feel that, at a point,
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religion and evolutionary science do come into direct conflict. Some of Dennett's thoughts and ideas, in conjunction with Dawkins's ideas, can run a little wayward of what I would call science, but simply because the ideas are blended with speculation and opinion. For further reading on the evolutionary perspective of religious thought, I would recommend Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer. Again, I really enjoyed the book, my personal disagreements notwithstanding.
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LibraryThing member miketroll
A brilliant exposition of the theory of evolution - so powerful and simple but so often poorly understood, if thought about at all. This book sets it all straight.
LibraryThing member chrisadami
One of the best books on Darwinism, and some of its detractors. Simply a must read.
LibraryThing member PLReader
It would have been a much better use of time to read Dawkins "The Blind Watchmaker". Dennett seems like he has an axe to grind and does so by attempting to inundate the reader with details.

Fascinating at times, but mired in minutia.
LibraryThing member FGBolton
Not a skip-through-the-pages read! But an excellent explanation of what evolution really is.
LibraryThing member yapete
Read this a while ago. Very thought provoking. Very clearly delineates between naturalistic, Darwinian thinking and the supernatural ('skyhook' as Dennett puts it). Agree with almost everything, I just remember it seemed a bit over the top in some places. But need to reread it...
LibraryThing member psiloiordinary
Cranes or skyhooks? I'm an unabashed crane man myself.

Dennett explores the wider implications of Darwin's theory of natural selection. We get lucid summaries of the current debates on Natural Selection as a logical algorithm or philosophical approach, we are introduced to the mindboggingly complex
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library of Mendel and a quick tour of many of the biological challenges to Darwin's ideas and why they are now disregarded, finally a section on mind, meaning, maths and morality which is incredibly thought provoking.

Dennett's style is careful and deliberate with as much thought given to the structure of his argument as the style of his prose. This is fortunate as he tackles some areas of thought in which it would be very easy to lose your way. I read this book a little while ago whilst on holiday and would recommend taking it in in fairly big chunks otherwise you will yourself having to constantly recap his complex arguments.

In fact it's so good - you don't even mind that a lot of what he covers is actually philosophy.

Ultimately Dennett aims o show that Darwin's theory and everything it tells us about the world around us is life affirming and how it can help to bring meaning to life.

A cracking good read.
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LibraryThing member digitalDARWIN
Wonderful book shedding a objective look at evolution. To be fair, Dennet does a nice job of explaining what evolution and natural selection is and what it is not. His compare and contrast with God is not on the same level of sophistication.
LibraryThing member robertg69
Playful examination of the evolution theory
LibraryThing member BrianFrank
One of my all-time favs -- and maybe my biggest influence.
LibraryThing member lorin
Dennett is an unapologetic neo-Darwinist, in the same camp as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. In this book, he discusses the philosophical implications of evolution by natural selection. Interesting topics of discussion include skyhooks, adaptationism, and mimetics.
LibraryThing member llasram
Didn’t have quite the impact on me [book: Conscious Explained] did, but still one of my favorite non-fiction books. As with Dennett’s other top work, rambles lovingly back-and-forth across the line between science and philosophy, blurring artificial distinctions and assembling a broad and
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multi-faceted perspective. Some of the science is a bit dated and some of the play-by-play academic infighting goes on a bit long, but this book still contains plenty of fascinating ideas and deep implications.
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LibraryThing member inasrullah64
Although the topic is very interesting and his idea that evolution is an algorithm is interesting, I don't see where Dennett comes off as the authority on evolution even though he is neither a biologist, a paleontologist, nor a physicist. The other major annoyance is his writing style which
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circumlocutes all over the place. Brevity is certainly a virtue. What could have been said in three hundred pages, is said in over 500 pages.

So what is he? A philosopher, which is where the book has its strength. What are the philosophical attributes of evolution, what does it mean for us,etc. Yet, as a philosopher, he belies his own erudition by getting certain facts just plain wrong about religion, specifically Islam.

As a philosopher, you would think that part of your training is to examine the philosophies of major (and minor) world religions. Yet on the topic of Islam, he resorts to simple, hyperbolic stereotypes of Islam to support his point on the role of memes and evolution on society.

Dennett glosses over details in biology that if examined critically might not lend complete support to his theses. For example, in the chapter, Priming the Pump, Dennett postulates that small nucleotide sequences aggregate onto clay to form small self-replicating sequences. These inchoate sequences serve as building blocks for DNA sequences. The most common occurring sequences (e.g. GCC) would automatically pair up with, and code for the most common occurring amino acids, like glycine. It doesn't matter that the sequences don't code for anything, just that they replicate and they code for an amino acid. The sequences self-replicate by virtue interdependent feed forward systems, that by itself, each dependent system would not self-replicate in a dominant way. Together though, they feed forward each others systems, thereby producing large amounts of self-replicating nucleotides that code for particular amino acids.

Okay, this is an interesting idea but he glosses over the details. For example, while certain nucleotides base pair with each other (adenine with thymine and guanosine with cytosine) via electrostatic charge, how do you get adjaced nucleotides to covalently bond to each other without a catalyst? Also, he skips the intermediate steps of transcription and translation of DNA and mRNA to produce a protein. He skips over how proteins are produced and just says they make wonderful catalysts, which they do. But what coded them in the first place?

Lastly, what I find boorish is that he presumes that anyone who is religious is fanatical, irrational, and fundamentalist. He is so anti-religious that he himself borders on fundamentalism- Darwinian fundamentalism. He seems just as intolerant as those he condemns.

After all is said and done, I don't think he has convinced me that evolution obviates God. I now turn to Kenneth Miller's book finding Darwin's God.
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LibraryThing member Keith_Conners
Universally acclaimed for its brilliance, wit and insight into Darwin and the implication for man's place in the universe
LibraryThing member Cheryl_in_CC_NV
(almost gave it four stars) A little bit too preachy for those of us already convinced that evolution is fact and the bible is a story.
LibraryThing member ritaer
A very dense book that delves into physics as well as biology, mathematical theory, artificial intelligence and neuroscience. The author begins with Locke's assumption that mind cannot emerge from matter, that mind therefore must come before matter in epistemology. He then proceeds to explain that,
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using algorithmic process the emergence of life, the evolution of species, the evolution of mind and of morals can proceed without any need for what he terms 'skyhooks' interventions from outside the process. I think I need to reread it to get a better grasp of his arguments.
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LibraryThing member keylawk
DD completes the work begun in Consciousness Explained (1991), rendering a materialist account of natural design--generally, and as to the human mind in particular. We do not need a soul (it does not account for anything or add to human behavior), nor a creator to explain an artifact.

And in the
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Preface, he declares his abandonment of "argument" --which is ignorable--and adoption of "story". Shocked? Just such an argument was made by Baha'u'llah a century ago.
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LibraryThing member Mandarinate
An exciting book that deals with the implications of evolution for philosophy and theology. Dennett has an engaging and polemical style. However, to an important extent, this book is a popularization of the ideas of Dawkins. After reading Dennett's book, I read Dawkin's Selfish Gene, which is the
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real deal in terms of originality.
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LibraryThing member _Greg
Explores the nature of evolution and life from a fundamental perspective. Fascinating and enlightening.


National Book Award (Finalist — Nonfiction — 1995)
Pulitzer Prize (Finalist — General Non-Fiction — 1996)



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