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Darwin's dangerous idea : evolution and the meanings of life (original 1995; edition 1995)

by Daniel Clement Dennett

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2,269262,820 (4.07)35
Member:neilgodfrey
Title:Darwin's dangerous idea : evolution and the meanings of life
Authors:Daniel Clement Dennett
Info:New York: Simon & Schuster, c1995. 586 p. : ill. ; 25 cm.
Collections:Google Drive, Darwin, Your library
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Tags:Science.Evolution

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Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life by Daniel C. Dennett (1995)

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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 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. ( )
  inasrullah64 | Sep 26, 2014 |
Darwin's Dangerous Idea could, in fact, be called 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 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.

Next, we get to the part of the book that deals with the implications of this dangerous (or not so dangerous after all) idea upon our minds. 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 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.

The last part of the book is devoted to morality and civilization, where the universal acid of the evolutionary algorithm takes the form of sociobiology. Dennett takes aim at social darwinists, seeing them as fundamentalists who think just because survival of the fittest is the way nature plays out, it should also dictate how society is run and what values to hold. This is the famous naturalistic fallacy, the problem with trying to simply base what 'ought' to be done with what 'is' in nature. Dennett shows how this extreme of simple reductionism to social darwinism as well as the reactionary extreme of using skyhooks to argue for moral relativism are equally fallacious. Sociobiology does show how our selfish genes have molded our bodies and minds, including our moral intuitions, and we must incorporate evolution into our understanding of morality and society, but it does not strictly dictate the best practices to follow. So how should morality be framed? Dennett shows how both consequentialism and deontology are intractable in practice, there are no objective algorithmic formulas for morality. Appeals to hyperrationality are bound to fail, and we cannot see the peaks of the moral landscape from where we stand today. What this means is that we must continually design and re-design ourselves through heuristics and feedback in practice, and thus grope our way up the landscape of morality.

I've read several of Dennett's books, but I found this one to be my favorite so far. The ideas are precise and profound. It should be required reading. ( )
1 vote haig51 | Apr 11, 2013 |
Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (quite a tongue twister) shows how Darwin’s twin ideas of animal speciation and natural selection help to inform our current philosophy. He starts from the basic tenets of The Origin of Species and builds a philosophical foundation that he then uses to counter all the attacks on Darwinian thought. Dennett is clearly not enamored with the leanings of Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin.

The foundation he builds helps guide the reader through the history of evolutionary thought and shows how Darwin’s theories are both fundamentally worldview-shattering and have a direct bearing on our ethics and morality. Granted, Dennett decidedly eschews any use for religious or supernatural thought, so those looking for a particularly balanced assessment of religion and science will be in for a letdown. That said, this is perhaps the most clear book on evolutionary philosophy I have read in a while, with the author leaving the thick scientific jargon out whenever possible.

http://lifelongdewey.wordpress.com/2012/07/24/146-darwins-dangerous-idea-by-dani... ( )
  NielsenGW | Jul 24, 2012 |
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 real deal in terms of originality. ( )
  Mandarinate | Jan 14, 2011 |
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 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. ( )
  llasram | Nov 9, 2010 |
Showing 1-5 of 22 (next | show all)
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 circle of contemporary Darwinian theorists: William Hamilton, John Maynard Smith, George C. Williams, and the brilliant popularizer Richard Dawkins.
 
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Epigraph
Neurath has likened science to a boat which, if we were to rebuld it, we must rebuild plank by plank while staying afloat in it. The philosopher and the scientist are in the same boat...

Analyze theory-building how we will, we must all start in the middle. Our conceptual firsts are middle-sized, middle-distanced objects, and our introduction to them and to everything comes midway in the cultural evolution of the race. In assimilating this cultural fare we are little more aware of a distinction between report and invention, substance and style, cues and conceptualization, than we are of a distinction between the proteins and the carbohydrates of our material intake. Retrospectively we may distinguish the components of theory-building, as we distinguish the proteins and carbohydrates while subsisting on them.

--Willard Van Orman Quine 1960, pp 4-6
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To Van Quine: teacher and friend
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We used to sing a lot when I was a child, around the campfire at summer camp, at school and Sunday school, or gathered around the piano at home.
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[...] by the time God has been depersonalized to the point of being some abstract and timeless principle of beauty or goodness, it is hard to see how the existence of God could explain anything. (p.180)
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In 1859 verscheen een van de belangrijkste boeken van onze tijd: The Oriain of Species van Charles Danvin. De bescheiden Britse dokterszoon met een geniaal talent voor wetenschap veroorzaakte met dit boek een aardschok die nog altijd natrilt. Zijn stelling was dat alle leven op aarde voortkomt uit een
voortdurende strijd om de schaarse ruimte en j Bemiddelen. Alles wat ons verbaast en verrukt in de levende natuur, maar ook alles wat ons verbijstert door zijn nietsontziende wreedheid - inclusief het gedrag van de mens — kan uiteindelijk verklaard worden met één makkelijk te begrijpen idee: de evolutieleer.
Maar is Darwins leer ook bewezen? De eeuw die sindsdien verstreken is, heeft behalve aanhangers ook tegenstanders voortgebracht. Filosofen en religieuze denkers maar ook biologen vielen Danvin met krachtige argumenten aan, en doen dat nog. Dennett zet in dit boek alle voors en tegeos van de evolutietheorie op een rij en schrijft daarmee de complete geschiedenis van een idee. Met superieur inzicht in de grote lijnen maar ook in details beschrijft hij hoe één idee, op zichzelf zo simpel dat elk schoolkind het begrijpt, onze kijk op de natuur en op onszelf blijvend kon veranderen.
Daniel C. Dennett is een van de meest gerespecteerde filosofen van dit moment en sinds de VPRO-serie Een schitterend ongeluk ook in Nederland geen onbekende. Van zijn hand verscheen eerder bij Uitgeverij Contact Het bewustzijn verklaard, waarover de pers schreef:
'Stilistisch it zijn boek - zeker voor een Nederlands filosofisch publiek — openbaring door de korzeligbeul, de ironische toon, de grapjes en de aandacht voor wetenschap.'
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 068482471X, Paperback)

One of the best descriptions of the nature and implications of Darwinian evolution ever written, it is firmly based in biological information and appropriately extrapolated to possible applications to engineering and cultural evolution. Dennett's analyses of the objections to evolutionary theory are unsurpassed. Extremely lucid, wonderfully written, and scientifically and philosophically impeccable. Highest Recommendation!

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:46:56 -0400)

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