In a book that is both groundbreaking and accessible, Daniel C. Dennett, whom Chet Raymo of The Boston Globe calls "one of the most provocative thinkers on the planet," focuses his unerringly logical mind on the theory of natural selection, showing how Darwin's great idea transforms and illuminates our traditional view of humanity's place in the universe. Dennett vividly describes the theory itself and then extends Darwin's vision with impeccable arguments to their often surprising conclusions, challenging the views of some of the most famous scientists of our day.
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.
At first glance this proposition seems non-controversial but, as Dennett makes very clear, the 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
And in the 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.
Fascinating at times, but mired in minutia.