A reader’s comment on one of my posts provided a good review of Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Here is Jim Roger’s review.
DARWIN’S DANGEROUS IDEA is one of those books that should be read slowly and savored – and then re-read again and again. It took me all summer to work my way through the book (I’m a slow reader), but it was a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking experience. Dennett has sharpened my understanding of Darwinian evolution from a vague concept that I learned many years ago in school to a much richer perspective.
While I gained many new insights from the book, perhaps the one that has stuck with me the most is Dennett’s description of natural selection as being a mindless, purposeless, algorithmic process. The feat of traversing through design space from the earliest, simple organisms to the present-day complexity of life was done in a bottom-up manner by little chemical and biological “cranes”. No “skyhooks” lowered by imaginary beings from above were needed. In Dennett’s words (p. 75): “Darwin has offered us an account of the crudest, most rudimentary, stupidest imaginable lifting process – the wedge of natural selection. By taking tiny – the tiniest possible – steps, this process can gradually, over eons, traverse these huge distances.”
Being an engineer, I was intrigued by how often Dennett’s explanations drew on familiar concepts used in engineering and computer science. He even has an entire chapter titled “Biology is Engineering”, in which he states the following (p. 187): “I want to make out the case that the engineering perspective on biology is not merely occasionally useful, not merely a valuable option, but the obligatory organizer of all Darwinian thinking, and the primary source of its power. I expect a fair amount of emotional resistance to this claim. Be honest: doesn’t this chapter’s title provoke a negative reaction in you, along the lines of ‘Oh no, what a dreary, philistine, reductionist claim! Biology is much more than engineering!’?”
Actually, I got quite excited when I saw the title of that chapter!
Dennett does not shy away from trying to correct misconceptions about evolution. Although written back in 1995, with some particular disagreements now consigned to the dustbin of history, his analysis still seems relevant today. In particular, Dennett singled out the popular author Stephen Jay Gould (now deceased). Although Dennett was very complimentary about the many contributions that Gould made, he ultimately felt that Gould often misled and confused the public on what evolution is. Dennett writes about a possible reason for this (p. 265): “The hypothesis I shall defend is that Gould is following in a long tradition of eminent thinkers who have been seeking skyhooks – and coming up with cranes.”
This controversy between Dennett and Gould, over twenty years ago, is OBE at this point. But there are still currently many well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning individuals that confuse and mislead the public about evolution and science in general. After all, it is basic human nature to seek and want to believe in skyhooks dangled by deities. That thesis is much more comforting (and marketable) than the notion that the meaning of life is to be found buried among the cranes. Yet, that latter notion is the net result of Dennett’s uncompromising and precise analysis, which is also like a universal acid in its own right: it eats through one’s misconceptions and cognitive biases and leaves behind a more clear-thinking, rational human being. (Well, I hope that happened to me…)
Of all the well-deserved comments of praise about the book inside the front cover, my favorite is the one from Matt Ridley of The Times (London): “If we had to choose one man to represent Earth in a debating tournament with extraterrestrials, the American philosopher Daniel Dennett would be a prime candidate”. I heartily agree.