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Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life

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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 pitfal 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.


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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 pitfal 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.

30 review for Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life

  1. 5 out of 5

    Greg

    1. Roughly 47% of Americans believe the theories in this book to be complete and utter bullshit at best, and at worst the work of the devil. That same 47 percent of the population that doesn’t believe in evolution also do not believe in the Sumerians or Dinosaurs. There is nothing that can be said to make them see that they could possibly be wrong about the world being created roughly 6,500 years ago, but that is fine because I believe the world was actually created 10 seconds ago, and it was cr 1. Roughly 47% of Americans believe the theories in this book to be complete and utter bullshit at best, and at worst the work of the devil. That same 47 percent of the population that doesn’t believe in evolution also do not believe in the Sumerians or Dinosaurs. There is nothing that can be said to make them see that they could possibly be wrong about the world being created roughly 6,500 years ago, but that is fine because I believe the world was actually created 10 seconds ago, and it was created all for me, with everyone and everything in it, including all my memories supplied just to give me and my own personal universe a history, which of course it is lacking since it has only existed for about a minute and a half now. Sorry that you don’t exist as much more than a ‘thing’ (and not even really that, most of you are just kind of there as non-entities I will never actually encounter, but even if I do you are still only in my head, so you’re not even things. But if you are a non-thing reading this feel free to click that you like this review) only here as color for my universe. 2. If you don’t believe you’re uneducated about the theory of evolution, this book may not be the best place to start. I think Dennett doesn’t mean for this to be an introduction to the topic, maybe a road map, where he points out some interesting spots along the way, and gives you ample opportunities to read and learn more for yourself in his 35 page bibliography, but if you are half-ignorant, like me, then you are going to be taking a lot of what he says at face value, for the time being at least. Instead of being a primer into the theory, the book is an expansive overview of the controversies and ramifications of the evolution on a wide variety of topics. Unless one is super-duper smart in all different fields, there is probably going to be quite a lot that you’ll end up just nodding along to, accepting Dennett’s reading of a particular issue and his answers to those issues. At times I probably got too accepting and just nodded along with my critical goggles put safely away since I had no idea how to judge the merits of the arguments being presented. 3. Three is a special number. It’s the dialectic, it’s the dad, the kid and the not so friendly ghost, it’s got lots of other meanings that my head knows but which it doesn’t want to give up right now. It’s also the number of thinkers that I’ve always imagined, and I’m guessing most people who care about things like this would agree with, that are considered the Heavy-Weights of revolutionary thinkers that shaped modernity. That would be Darwin, Marx and Freud. Can this be considered pretty un-controversial? Good. Or not, but at least nod along with me and pretend you agree. 4. Lets leave Daniel Dennett here and move across the pond, so to speak, to the universe of Continental philosophy. What Dennett is putting forth in this book is that Darwin’s dangerous idea isn’t just about decentering the universe and man’s place in it. It’s not just about showing that creationism is the intellectual equivalent of believing that the world is flat or that the sun rotates around the Earth. Dennett calls the idea of evolution a universal acid that is so strong it corrodes everything it touches, or maybe not corrodes, but changes at least. Using a different metaphor, and one more apt to Continental philosophy, Darwin’s idea is a hammer that smashes right through most of Western Philosophy. Nietzsche wanted to philosophize with a hammer, well by Dennett’s description Darwin is the tool that can do that. Plato’s theory of ideal forms? Smash. Aristotelian means and his four basic causes? Smash. Cartesian duality? Smash. John Locke? Smash! Why? This might not be totally accurate, but I could argue it and in a manner of thinking it’s true, Darwin removed metaphysics and teleology and was able to give the ground work for a scientifically provable explanation for the world. Removing the science part, isn’t this kind of what the most contemporary strands of Continental thought were trying to do? Isn’t saying philosophy is dead, the author has died, God is dead, etc., isn’t deconstructing everything in sight, travesing plateaus, seeing the world as a simulacra, declaring reality to have been left behind (add any other wacky French theory here), aren’t these all ways of saying the entire tradition of Western Philosophy (or thought) is problematic? Funny thing is, I don’t ever remember coming across a Darwinian theorist in those intellectual waters. Which is kind of strange. Here is something that is being worked on with results, facts and figures and numbers and graphs and all of those things scientists come up with that can be used to show an entirely non-phantom description of the universe, the mind, creation, etc., and as far as I’m aware it is never used. Looking at the number people willing to use Lacan as an expert with his idea that the absent is actually more present than what is present and the present is actually not there at all (seriously did this actually help anyone who went to get psychiatric help? I find it to be great fun to think in these lines, but outside of coming up with neat explanations for texts where does this go? What kind of proof can there be? It’s fun sophistry.), or overextending Marx to cover anything under the sun and stick it with a teleology, or to step back one level of influence, the continued predominance of Hegelian thinking, which where it’s true it’s kind of like saying so what, and where it’s wrong it’s embarrassing the degree that it’s wrong by. I’m a little embarrassed that I never thought of the ramifications that Dennett pointed out until now. Not that I ever really studied Darwin at all, or any science for that matter, but just the general ideas that are opened up by his explanation of evolution aren’t a big intellectual leap to see how it ultimately undermines metaphysics, and can remove the boogeymen of the soul and god from the intelligent thoughts about causality. 4. Four is the tetrad. The most perfect number to Pythagoras, 1+2+3+4=10. I’m just throwing that in because I have nothing more. This review I thought would be more coherent. I thought I’d have something productive to say. I thought my thoughts on continental philosophy would be more substantial, but they aren’t. I’ll have to keep working on them and maybe share them in a review where they will be even more out of place.

  2. 4 out of 5

    John Wiswell

    This was by far the most annoying book I read in college. It isn't just wordy; it's bloated with needless tangents and almost incomprehensibly dense passages. I watched an entire college science class misunderstand this for two excruciating weeks of debate and left thoroughly disappointed in Dennett's prose. It's simply too long and stuffy for its own good; and worse, for a 600-page monolith, it insists on simplifying things to "God did it by miracle" or "natural selection did it mindlessly." Thi This was by far the most annoying book I read in college. It isn't just wordy; it's bloated with needless tangents and almost incomprehensibly dense passages. I watched an entire college science class misunderstand this for two excruciating weeks of debate and left thoroughly disappointed in Dennett's prose. It's simply too long and stuffy for its own good; and worse, for a 600-page monolith, it insists on simplifying things to "God did it by miracle" or "natural selection did it mindlessly." This is a typical A/B argument that a lot of popular scientists and religious types subscribe to because they only have to insult one opponent to win, and no other school of thought is given credibility. And oh, how he insults his opposition. From his crane and sky hook analogies, to all his snide remarks about religion, to his adopting Darwin's means for arguments about physics and psychology (things Darwinians might enjoy, but that Darwin himself would have bawked at), his conclusions are neither philosophically sound nor scientifically useful. Dawkins handles memes better, Gould handles evolution better, and pretty much anything on the physics and spirituality bookshelves at the store does those domains better credit.

  3. 5 out of 5

    R.A. Schneider

    As I neared the end of my second month of slogging through this book, I asked myself, "What keeps you going? Each night you read a page or two, re-read half of those, and then start again the next night." The answer is that this book is so dense and well written that it deserves to be savored and thought about. For an evolutionary neophyte like myself (both in evolutionary time, and in terms of how much I know about the concept of evolution) the book has some fairly difficult and complex sections As I neared the end of my second month of slogging through this book, I asked myself, "What keeps you going? Each night you read a page or two, re-read half of those, and then start again the next night." The answer is that this book is so dense and well written that it deserves to be savored and thought about. For an evolutionary neophyte like myself (both in evolutionary time, and in terms of how much I know about the concept of evolution) the book has some fairly difficult and complex sections. But Dennett overcomes the jargon and is able to distill the ideas to their essence in every chapter. I feel VERY good about my understanding of the idea now. Particularly useful was the concept of a library with every volume ever written, AND every variation on those volumes. Start with Moby Dick as an example. This library contains every version of that book ever written, edited or published. So what? Well, the library also contains a version of the book that begins, "Call me Jshmael." There are millions of versions of Moby Dick with subtle variations, some which have little or no effect on the readability; others are a complete mess that no one would or could read. A quick translation to the idea of genes, and we have what Dennett referred to as the "Mendelian Library." All of the various ways our billions of genes can be arranged, and the results of these arrangements. This library concept illuminates the vastness of "design space" available for genetics to operate in. This metaphor carries much of the book, and has been hugely useful in helping increase my understanding of the ideas behind Darwinian AND post-Darwinian evolution (remember, Darwin didn't know about genes.) The only reason I gave this a 4 instead of a five is just because of the sheer burden of having to force myself through the work.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Joshua Nomen-Mutatio

    "If you can approach the world's complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things." — Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell "Is this Tree of Life* a God one could worship? Pray to? "If you can approach the world's complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things." — Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell "Is this Tree of Life* a God one could worship? Pray to? Fear? Probably not. But it did make the ivy twine and the sky so blue, so perhaps the song I love tells a truth after all. The Tree of Life is neither perfect nor infinite in space or time, but it is actual, and if it is not Anselm's "Being greater than which nothing can be conceived," it is surely a being that is greater than anything any of us will ever conceive of in detail worthy of its detail. Is something sacred? Yes, say I with Nietzsche. I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence. This world is sacred." — Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea *The latest Terrence Malick film looks amazing. Just saw the preview earlier today at the theater. It put me in a similar state of mind as this book does. It's too bad that I can't find an official trailer online yet. When I do find one I'll probably make it known somehow.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Zanna

    Philosopher Dan Dennett argues that the theory of natural selection is a 'universal acid', burning through our basic ideas about science and beyond, leaving a completely changed intellectual landscape. The revelation that mind did not design life inverts the traditional Christian-derived pyramid. Dennett shows that evolution needs 'no skyhooks' - no supernatural powers - and instead produced us and our artifacts and ideas using 'cranes', artefacts and strategies that accelerate development (the Philosopher Dan Dennett argues that the theory of natural selection is a 'universal acid', burning through our basic ideas about science and beyond, leaving a completely changed intellectual landscape. The revelation that mind did not design life inverts the traditional Christian-derived pyramid. Dennett shows that evolution needs 'no skyhooks' - no supernatural powers - and instead produced us and our artifacts and ideas using 'cranes', artefacts and strategies that accelerate development (the image derives from the fact that a small crane can be used to erect a larger one). He explains and answers the critiques of opponents to orthodox neo-Darwinism, and points out pitfalls on both sides, for example distinguishing sensible (in fact, tautological) reductionism from 'greedy reductionism' (one culprit in the latter category is behaviourism in psychology: Skinnerians who believe that all behaviour is a function of operant conditioning. The inadequacy of such theories has been demonstrated by, for instance, the research of linguists like Chomsky) Dennett points out that natural selection is an algorithmic process, and carefully examines the implications for science and philosophy, including ethics. An interesting consequence is support for the possibility of artificial intelligence (since consciousness is not magic, but arises from biological phenomena: the mind is in the brain). He develops the idea of 'memes' as mental analogues of genes; symbiotes evolved to live in minds, making persons of the humans they infest and hyper-accelerating life's trajectory through design-space. "The prize is, for the first time, a stable system of explanation that does not go round in circles or spiral off in an infinite regress of mysteries. Some people would prefer an infinite regress of mysteries, apparently, but in this day and age the cost is prohibitive: you have to get yourself deceived. You can either deceive yourself or let others do the dirty work, but there is no intellectually defensible way of rebuilding the mighty barriers to comprehension that Darwin smashed."

  6. 4 out of 5

    Clif

    Imagine running through an orchard grabbing fruit as you go. After you finish, you look back and decide to take a very large bag and stroll slowly through again, carrying a ladder picking the best fruit you can find. Darwin's Dangerous Idea is the first book I have ever read twice in a row. Dennett is a master of clear thinking and builds his case through logic, but he surveys a very large territory and I felt upon finishing my first read, that I hadn't grasped all he had to say. The second read Imagine running through an orchard grabbing fruit as you go. After you finish, you look back and decide to take a very large bag and stroll slowly through again, carrying a ladder picking the best fruit you can find. Darwin's Dangerous Idea is the first book I have ever read twice in a row. Dennett is a master of clear thinking and builds his case through logic, but he surveys a very large territory and I felt upon finishing my first read, that I hadn't grasped all he had to say. The second read was as enjoyable but more satisfying than the first, but rather than carrying a ladder, I pulled out a highlighter. I've always been impressed with Charles Darwin and believe that his thoughts on evolution are as significant to the advance of knowledge as the discovery of how to make fire was to the advance of civilization. For the roughly 6 million years since our branch of the tree of life separated from the ancestors we have in common with chimps and bonobos, humanity has lived in ignorance of the reality of how the world around us has come to be. Because of the unbearable anxiety that went with ignorance, it was mandatory that something be thought up to explain things and religions fit the bill. The profound difference for those who have lived within the last 150 years, is that mythology can be put aside for truth. As far as we know, we, on our little planet, exhibit for the first time the universe coming to understand itself. For all the number of earth-like planets that may be out there, we don't have a shred of evidence to date that we are not all alone. Life must be rare, if not unique to Earth. The dangerous idea that Dennett writes about is that insensate matter has, through blind unguided experimentation under a system of order (chemistry and physics) with the aid of inconceivable amounts of time, started life itself and then developed to the incredible variety of it we see today through natural selection. Dennett calls this idea a universal acid because it puts holes in all of the tales we have told ourselves about a god above and our place apart from other life on earth. It's comforting to believe that there is a benevolent creator and overseer, that there is a "me" that is not entirely held within the physical body, yet nobody has ever come up with even the slightest evidence that our fond desires have anything to do with the reality of our being. With great patience and a delightful sense of humor, Dennett methodically dismantles every attempt to falsify Darwin's idea. Even many scientists, he tells us, are reluctant to part with the idea of a "skyhook", an external, inexplicable agent that has somehow intervened to bring us to our condition of mind-directedness independent of natural selection. We are definitely special for having language and consciousness and culture. Dennett is not belittling mankind, far from it! He sees that we are not the helpless automatons that animals are - going through the motions of life without the ability to benefit from the rich store of information that we humans have built up and readily communicate to each other. We are the masters of our fate because we have the world of ideas that transcends our genetic recipe. There is no cause for despair, but there is cause to be wary of those who would like to return to the comforts of mythology. Darwin's Dangerous Idea is not a quick and easy read, but that is because it is so carefully crafted for the mind to follow. You cannot be distracted since an idea will be carried through several pages and you need to follow the logic. The language is not technical, Dennett peppers the text with everyday phrases. He carefully defines his terms but you have to note those definitions because the terms will pop up again and again. Most enjoyable are his mind experiments, his constructions made for the reader to better understand a point. What if you were going to go under suspended animation for centuries and had to design a robot to get you through that period of time? What characteristics would you give it to best assure your survival? Genes have made their way through endless iterations of trial and error and what have they come up with that is successful? Look around you to see countless examples in every form of life we know, then look in the mirror. What genes cannot do is produce change anywhere near that of the environment. This has been shown repeatedly with great die-offs that reduced the number of species up to 90% in episodes over the history of earth. In our time, humanity in its effect on the environment has created a hurdle that genetic change is helpless to address. The problem for all life is us and our own actions will determine its fate. If you want revelation, put the bible aside and get a copy of this book. You won't need a shaman or a priest to interpret for you, all you need is to pay attention to find out how even what seem to be the most impenetrable mysteries become clear when viewed with the dangerous idea of Darwin's that turns out to be illuminating (and subject to proof) in so many areas. Maybe I'll read it a third time. :) UPDATE 2018, I did.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Gendou

    This is my first Dennett book, and he had me worried in the first chapter with all that philosophy. Then I recognized something from my study of of effective field theory: "Here, then, is Darwin's dangerous idea: the algorithmic level is the level that best accounts for the speed of the antelope, the wing of the eagle, the shape of the orchid, the diversity of species, and the other occasions for wonder in the world of nature." He also refers to Darwin's dangerous idea as a universal acid, able to This is my first Dennett book, and he had me worried in the first chapter with all that philosophy. Then I recognized something from my study of of effective field theory: "Here, then, is Darwin's dangerous idea: the algorithmic level is the level that best accounts for the speed of the antelope, the wing of the eagle, the shape of the orchid, the diversity of species, and the other occasions for wonder in the world of nature." He also refers to Darwin's dangerous idea as a universal acid, able to cut through tough problems, and as the first theory based on an algorithm. Dennett goes on to talk about evolution, so-called controversies around Darwin's theory of natural selection, the origin of life, the modern synthesis, genetics, etc. This survey was mostly stuff I'd heard before, however, because Dawkins. Then Dennett started popping caps in metaphorical asses. This is my favorite part. He laid the smack down on Noam Chomsky for denying the evolution of language. He tore up Gould's spandrels and exaptations. He explains why Searle is wrong about artificial intelligence. He debunked Penrose's theory of consciousness arising from micro-tubules. He also criticizes sociobiology for comically and habitually underestimating human intelligence in the face of forced moves (situations with an obvious, best solution). Dennett uses two particularly clever thought experiments in this book. One has to do with black boxes and a green, red or yellow light. I won't spoil this, but will say it has to do with Gödel's proof, cryptography, and the philosophy of mind. The second thought experiment is that of people who want to cold sleep until a distant future date. They design an autonomous robot programmed to keep them save, and move their frozen coffin around to keep it safe and powered. This turns on its head the relationship between genes and the brain. What is the brain but a machine built by genes to aid in their survival? Fun stuff.

  8. 4 out of 5

    AJ

    This book is purely about Darwin's theory of natural selection. IT'S NOT A BIOLOGY TEXT. It's not really about biology at all, but the larger, widely-applicable algorithmic process that happened to push forth original life. It covers a massive span of topics, most rather philosophical, including reactions to Darwinian thought (from Neo-Darwinist scientists, and others), issues in reductionism, possibility, 'evolutions' of meaning, 'evolutions' of morality, and a lot more. It's pretty unbelievabl This book is purely about Darwin's theory of natural selection. IT'S NOT A BIOLOGY TEXT. It's not really about biology at all, but the larger, widely-applicable algorithmic process that happened to push forth original life. It covers a massive span of topics, most rather philosophical, including reactions to Darwinian thought (from Neo-Darwinist scientists, and others), issues in reductionism, possibility, 'evolutions' of meaning, 'evolutions' of morality, and a lot more. It's pretty unbelievable how far these ideas go, and this book expands beyond any one sphere of academia. Please, don't get all cocky on me. Even the Evolutionary Biologists need to read this one.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Craig Williams

    I hate to abandon a book before I finish it, but some books just force my hand in the matter. I picked up this book because I had always heard of Daniel Dennett, as he is one of the infamous "Four Horsemen of Atheism" (also including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchins). I wanted to read some of his work, saw this book, and thought the title provocative. However, the more I read, the more of a chore it became just to pick up the book. I don't want to give the wrong impression - I hate to abandon a book before I finish it, but some books just force my hand in the matter. I picked up this book because I had always heard of Daniel Dennett, as he is one of the infamous "Four Horsemen of Atheism" (also including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchins). I wanted to read some of his work, saw this book, and thought the title provocative. However, the more I read, the more of a chore it became just to pick up the book. I don't want to give the wrong impression - this is probably not a bad book by any means! Perhaps if I were more intelligent, at least in the area of evolutionary biology and genetics, I'd find every word of this book fascinating beyond measure. Since I am not, I found the book a gigantic bore, with no hope of being anything more than that. I find that, ultimately, Dennett lacks the ability to connect with readers who are not as academic as he, such as writers like Dawkins or Sagan can. Reading this, I had that same feeling of hopelessness I would get when taking a really difficult class. So, with heavy heart, much reluctance, and a huge migraine, I gave up at about Chapter Six. Maybe if I get more well versed in this subject by a writer that is better able to simplify it, I'll re-approach this book... or maybe I'll just sell the damn thing back to work.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Mehrsa

    This book felt like brain yoga. It was such a delight to follow the logic-based arguments Dennett constructs and the analogies he uses and the way he picks apart other people's bad arguments. Darwin's dangerous idea, he says, is like a universal acid that corrodes all our faiths and institutions. In fighting this, we have mischaracterized it, feared it, or run away from it. Dennett confronts it head on and explains what that means for us and for our culture. It's not overly scientific. It's well This book felt like brain yoga. It was such a delight to follow the logic-based arguments Dennett constructs and the analogies he uses and the way he picks apart other people's bad arguments. Darwin's dangerous idea, he says, is like a universal acid that corrodes all our faiths and institutions. In fighting this, we have mischaracterized it, feared it, or run away from it. Dennett confronts it head on and explains what that means for us and for our culture. It's not overly scientific. It's well-reasoned, well-written, and a delight to read.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Bethany

    Interesting beginning, but the philosophizing and repetitiveness takes over. Half of it is refuting other peoples' writings. If you're not already familiar with important philosophical concepts and terminology, and you haven't read Stephen Jay Gould before, I can't really recommend this book. I will say that the idea of skyhooks and cranes is really fantastic, though.

  12. 4 out of 5

    DJ

    DESIGN OUT OF CHAOS WITHOUT MIND This book is not "yet another pop-sci book on evolution." It does not set out to convince the reader with a series of well-known arguments that evolution is true. Instead, it assumes you've accepted the idea and explores it as an abstract framework for understanding the world. It is the first and only book I've encountered that takes evolution as a worldview and not just a biological explanation of speciation. I drew far too many wonderful ideas and frameworks from DESIGN OUT OF CHAOS WITHOUT MIND This book is not "yet another pop-sci book on evolution." It does not set out to convince the reader with a series of well-known arguments that evolution is true. Instead, it assumes you've accepted the idea and explores it as an abstract framework for understanding the world. It is the first and only book I've encountered that takes evolution as a worldview and not just a biological explanation of speciation. I drew far too many wonderful ideas and frameworks from this book to write a review essay-style, so I'll enumerate the most salient ideas by topic. HISTORY OF THE IDEA -Natural selection may have been the first strong step toward viewing the world by processes and not things. -Humans ignore gathering pools of evidence until an explanation of the mechanism is proposed. In other words, we seem to value understanding and predictability over evidence. POSSIBILITY AND DESIGN SPACES -Speciation is not the presence of something (read: an essential nature of a species); it is the absence of reproductive bridges between related organisms. -Discovery and invention are indistinguishable from the framework of possibility spaces. One doesn't invent theories or configurations of matter; one discovers them in design space. CAUSATION -History is made relevant by the future. This is especially true in evolutionary biology, in which the evolutionary past is unavoidingly coupled to the future. -Speciation is determined by the future survival of one's ancestors; not by the contemporary actions of a proverbial "Adam" or "Eve." PHILOSOPHY AND LIFE -Life is a statistical fluctuation of low entropy. -Life is matter grasping at a rock in the river of increasing entropy. MISCONCEPTIONS -Evolution does not process the "best" solutions; it produces "stable" solutions. -Evolutionary thinking is not the simple application of determining whether or how a trait increases rate of survival. It is the intricate conversation that takes place between concepts such as forced moves, culture, genetics, survival, reproductive prowess, and stability. MEMETICS -Memes operate under different selection pressures in different groups (i.e. science, fashion) and at different levels of magnification (i.e. individuals, families). -Commitments can be viewed as stable governments of memes. In others words, a stable collection of memes that support one another. INTELLIGENCE -Intelligence may be embedded in objects. We invest some intelligence in designing an object to be used by others. A user may, without a manual, recognize the use of the object and gain intelligence through it. Objects then may be seen as vectors of intelligence and sources of inspiration.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jeremy Lyon

    In this book Dennett makes an authoritative case against the necessity of what he calls "skyhooks" in order to explain life and meaning. Skyhooks are the deus ex machina of science, invented to make the case for human exceptionalism. Dennett's able to show that evolutionary theory can dissolve just about any argument in favor of skyhooks into plain, old-fashioned incrementalism. The vast majority of the book is devoted to this topic; considerably fewer pages are allocated to describing how morali In this book Dennett makes an authoritative case against the necessity of what he calls "skyhooks" in order to explain life and meaning. Skyhooks are the deus ex machina of science, invented to make the case for human exceptionalism. Dennett's able to show that evolutionary theory can dissolve just about any argument in favor of skyhooks into plain, old-fashioned incrementalism. The vast majority of the book is devoted to this topic; considerably fewer pages are allocated to describing how morality and meaning can be generated by incrementalism, and I kept feeling there was a lot of hand waving going on in the final chapters. There was no Theory of Meaning clearly enunciated, but in Dennett's defense he wasn't trying to build one. In fact, he claims that no such beast exists, that morality, like life, is a finely gradated set of decisions in which the transition from right to wrong is never clear and only identifiable in retrospect.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Ken-ichi

    I picked up this book because I'm an atheist and I wanted to read something by one of the New Atheists, because the notion that anyone would want to capitalize "atheist" seemed somewhat anti-atheistic to me (aatheistic?), and Dennett appeared to be the least pig-headed. Somewhat unfortunately for my project, this book has nothing to do with atheism, but fortunately for me in general, it has everything to do with evolution by natural selection and its implications beyond biology, which is a prett I picked up this book because I'm an atheist and I wanted to read something by one of the New Atheists, because the notion that anyone would want to capitalize "atheist" seemed somewhat anti-atheistic to me (aatheistic?), and Dennett appeared to be the least pig-headed. Somewhat unfortunately for my project, this book has nothing to do with atheism, but fortunately for me in general, it has everything to do with evolution by natural selection and its implications beyond biology, which is a pretty cool consolation prize. Unfortunately, being a non-philosopher of middling mental capacities, I did not understand, well, a lot of the interesting parts of this book, possibly because I'm not up to the mental task, possibly because the author is unnecessarily prolix (I can't tell; attempts to make arguments without evidence may require prolixity), possibly because the subjects at hand are intrinsically complicated for everyone. For me, the uninteresting parts were the re-explanation of natural selection and its implications in biology, which Dennett does a good job describing and will probably be pretty good for people with little to no grounding in the area. I also found a lot of the philosophical fisticuffs with individual thinkers (Gould, Chomsky, etc.) to be excessively detailed for a lay reader. Isn't that what journals are for? Anyway, the rest was really cool, even if I didn't grasp it all. Here are some of my take-homes Evolution implies incremental states for all biological adaptations, including ideas like meaning, self-awareness, the mind, etc. If you don't believe in the supernatural and you don't believe anything has simply entered the Universe ex nihilo since the Big Bang, there is no better explanation for the existence of life than evolution by natural selection, and since we have no evidence that ideas exist outside of organisms or their creations, we must assume these ideas also evolved from earlier, simpler forms. I'm frankly an unconscious subscriber to Snow's Two Cultures, and this stuff is definitely on the other side of the fence for me, but that stance is largely due to laziness, or perhaps even a subconscious discomfort with the implications: it's hard to see "determination" in the behavior of a bacterium, say, or to think that there's anything like my sense of purpose in the mechanistic actions of an enzyme. As a scientist, or at least a scientifically disposed person, I generally view these concepts as intractable, or entirely relativistic (kind of the same thing in my mind), but Dennett argues that we need to stop thinking about them in essentialist terms (e.g. meaning is meaning: pseudo-meaning is meaningless), because the alternatives all require supernatural explanations that are themselves unsatisfactory (if God gave us free will, where did she get it from?). To quote,Through the microscope of molecular biology, we get to witness the birth of agency, in the first macromolecules that have enough complexity to "do things." This is not a florid agency—echt intentional action, with the representation of reasons, deliberation, reflection, and conscious decision—but it is the only possible ground from which the seeds of intentional action could grow. There is something alien and vaguely repellant about the quasi-agency we discover at this level—all that purposive hustle and bustle, and yet there's nobody home. The molecular machines perform their amazing stunts, obviously exquisitely designed, and just as obviously none the wiser about what they re doing. [...] Love it or hate it, phenomena like this exhibit the heart of the power of the Darwinian idea. An impersonal, unreflective, robotic, mindless little scrap of molecular machinery is the ultimate basis of all the agency, and hence meaning, and hence consciousness, in the universe. (pp. 202-203) Biology is not like engineering, it is engineering Dennett argues that engineering, unlike other methods of effecting change, generally involves some information gathering, making something imperfect, assessing that something, and then trying again with a better design. He views evolution, and hence all consequent biological adaptations, as being not just analogous, but exactly the same process, with different degrees of the kind of intentionality we usually ascribe to engineering. An eyeball is not miraculous: it's just version 2.0 billion. Gould & Lewontin did not disprove adaptation by natural selection The revelation for me is that anyone even thought they did, or that anyone interpreted their famous 1979 paper, "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme," as an attempt to replace adaption. I read the paper in college and my hazy recollection was that it was more of an introduction to some legitimate alternatives to adaptation as an explanation for biological phenomena that could apply in a small minority of cases, and that evolutionary biologists shouldn't assume that adaptation is always the reason, even if it usually is. That's basically where Dennett ends up in his assessment, but he goes to what seem like extraordinary lengths in doing so, to the point of dismantling G & L's central metaphor (spandrels, apparently, are not necessary if you want to hold up a vaulted ceiling). Just b/c the metaphor was poorly-chosen doesn't invalidate the idea of non-adaptive features forming the substrate for future adaption ("exaptation"). The rest of his Gould-bashing might be legit, but I think this paper got unfairly lambasted. I guess if the way Dennett depicts its legacy in the humanities is accurate, maybe it was necessary. The interesting stuff I didn't understand concerned what these kinds of intermediary forms of ideas actually looked like, and how memes can have philosophical relevance without any scientific reality, which was sort of the entire last third of the book, I'm afraid. Good stuff. Looking forward to looking up some reviews. Addendum 1 Of course the most incendiary review I could find was by Gould: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archi.... Dennett replied: http://www.stephenjaygould.org/review... Kind of nasty stuff, though having just read the book, I feel like Gould misread Dennett, and while Dennett gets overly personal in some of his criticism of Gould (for my tastes, at least), he is not an Darwinian fundamentalist. I never got the sense he was trying to promote adaptation as the complete explanation for all phenomena in nature, just the bits with design. Addendum 2 Have to admit I only knew CP Snow's Two Cultures by reputation, but my sister (denizen of the other culture that she is) pointed out that it's kind of awful, and she's right, pretty classic 50s scientific hubris (not to mention classic homophobia and misogyny). I still think people from the sciences and the humanities have trouble talking to each other. Despite the fact that my sister and I just did. And despite this article on Nabokov's butterfly research: http://nautil.us/issue/8/home/speak-b...

  15. 5 out of 5

    Dave

    “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” by Daniel C. Dennett is one of the better books on Evolution available. Dennett is probably best known as one of The Four Horsemen (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris), i.e. atheists who speak out against the problems that organized religion causes in our society. Of the four, though, Dennett tends to stay away from the blood-boiling criticism in which the others sometimes engage. Instead, Dennett spends his time discussing the state of the science. This book is a v “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” by Daniel C. Dennett is one of the better books on Evolution available. Dennett is probably best known as one of The Four Horsemen (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris), i.e. atheists who speak out against the problems that organized religion causes in our society. Of the four, though, Dennett tends to stay away from the blood-boiling criticism in which the others sometimes engage. Instead, Dennett spends his time discussing the state of the science. This book is a very good example of Dennett’s approach as he focuses on the science and the theories, though there are a few exceptions which I will discuss later in this review. The book has three sections. The first section is titled “Starting in the Middle” in which Dennett discusses where the theory of evolution is today, where it started (including pre-Darwin theories of evolution), and how it has reached its current state. The second section is “Darwinian Thinking in Biology” talks about recent biological theories which claim to move beyond Darwinian Theory and Dennett attempts to bring them all back to either Darwin or the supernatural or “cranes or skyhooks” using Dennett’s terms. The last section is “Mind, Meaning, Mathematics, and Morality” and it looks at some of the more difficult questions, for which Dennett provides plausible scenarios. The strengths of this book are many. To begin with Dennett creates a set of terms, like his “skyhooks” and “cranes” to facilitate the discussion and make it very easy for the reader to follow. In addition, Dennett builds examples from the start and in some cases takes those examples through a large part of the book and uses them very cleverly to aide in explaining the topic. The writing is clear, the discussion is thorough, and Dennett does not let the discussion to become too technical, though at the same time he provides a bibliography which provides a place to look for more information on any of the specific subtopics that one finds interesting. There are a couple of things which I didn’t like about the book, the first one being rather small and insignificant. At the top of the second page of the book, and extending to the footnote, Dennett goes out of his way to pick a fight with creationism. Dennett calls “creation science,” ‘a pathetic hodgepodge of pious pseudo-science’ and then in the footnote states ‘I will not devote any space in this book to cataloguing the deep flaws in creationism, or supporting my peremptory condemnation of it. I take that job to have been admirably done by Kitcher 1982, Futuyma 1983, Gilkey 1985, and others.’ I think Dennett would have been well served with a statement that he was not going to talk about “creation science” and left it at that. Instead this comes across as petty name-calling and is beneath the author. The other issue is that Dennett has the same reaction to any suggestion that there is a mechanism other than natural selection, and those who suggest there is he accuses of looking for “skyhooks” or in other words a supernatural entity. I think that this is a rather big mistake, and it results in Dennett being very critical of some others, including Stephen Jay Gould, but from my reading of Gould he was open to other natural mechanisms, and considered concepts like constraints to be mechanisms. Perhaps Dennett’s interactions with creationists have made him a bit too sensitive in this area, but whatever the cause I consider it a significant weakness in the book. Overall the book is a very good discussion of the topic, and is suitable for readers who are already familiar with the subject and want to delve deeper, as well as those who know little about it and want to learn about it. While there are a couple of areas that I would rather Dennett had taken a different approach, those are far outweighed by the strengths of Dennett’s writing, and philosophical approach to the discussion of the topic. This book easily rates 4-stars.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Steve Van Slyke

    This should not be anyone's first book about evolution, natural selection or Charles Darwin. Dennett, and this book in particular, was referenced in so many other books I'd read on evolution that I felt I needed to read one of his, but was somewhat surprised to find myself in something so abstract that I occasionally had trouble following him. If you're looking for a book about the nuts and bolts of evolution and natural selection this is not it. On the other hand, for those who are scientists, This should not be anyone's first book about evolution, natural selection or Charles Darwin. Dennett, and this book in particular, was referenced in so many other books I'd read on evolution that I felt I needed to read one of his, but was somewhat surprised to find myself in something so abstract that I occasionally had trouble following him. If you're looking for a book about the nuts and bolts of evolution and natural selection this is not it. On the other hand, for those who are scientists, steeped in the literature of evolution and seeking a more theoretical or philosophical approach, or for those who enjoy reading works of philosophy and wish to enter the realm of evolution through that door then this book would probably be more enjoyable for them than it was for me. Thus my rating reflects my preference for less philosophical, more practical, hard science approaches to the subject of evolution, and not the quality of Dennett's writing or his arguments.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Robb Seaton

    A slog. Dennet's prose is seldom clear, too much time spent on arguing about words. Most of Dennet's digressions (70% of the book) seem designed to signal the author's breadth of learning rather than to promote understanding.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Ripu Jain

    My review wont do justice to this work by the genius thinker that Dan Dennett is. Let me start by saying this tome is not for the faint of heart. I claim to be no scientist or genius, rather a curious thinker, but this book has by far been the most intellectually taxing yet satisfying book I've read. The author beautifully uses various streams of science - from biology to critical reasoning to AI to physics and chemistry - and adds philosophy with brilliant examples and analogies and metaphors, t My review wont do justice to this work by the genius thinker that Dan Dennett is. Let me start by saying this tome is not for the faint of heart. I claim to be no scientist or genius, rather a curious thinker, but this book has by far been the most intellectually taxing yet satisfying book I've read. The author beautifully uses various streams of science - from biology to critical reasoning to AI to physics and chemistry - and adds philosophy with brilliant examples and analogies and metaphors, to defend, educate and explain Darwin's dangerous idea - Evolution. If you're a religious person trying to understand evolution, this isn't the right starting book for you. However, if you're an agnostic/atheist/free-thinker looking for an intelligent read, then this is the perfect entree for your mind. I listened to the Audiobook version of the book, and I remember rewinding and re-listening certain passages multiple times to grasp and comprehend the concept being explained. Every chapter's end will definitely leave you thinking for hours, and make you little more intelligent than when you started the chapter. My appreciation for the present and past scientists working in the field of evolution and biology and genetics has definitely grown multifolds, and same for philosophers and thinkers of present and past centuries.I will definitely be revisiting this book later when I'm older and wiser. Totally recommend this book.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Tristan

    When I started this book I thought I would love it. As Dennett says, the implications of the Darwinian Revolution have not yet been realized by humankind, even though everyone - Darwinians and anti-Darwinians alike - understands that Darwin's idea hits the core of what we care about. Dennett aims to show how Darwin's theory, applied broadly and properly, can inform just about every aspect of human thought. Dennett explains how Darwinian logic applies to human nature, culture, morality, economics When I started this book I thought I would love it. As Dennett says, the implications of the Darwinian Revolution have not yet been realized by humankind, even though everyone - Darwinians and anti-Darwinians alike - understands that Darwin's idea hits the core of what we care about. Dennett aims to show how Darwin's theory, applied broadly and properly, can inform just about every aspect of human thought. Dennett explains how Darwinian logic applies to human nature, culture, morality, economics, and more. Which is great. But what is not so great is that Dennett forces you to wade through endless tangents, obscure passages, and gratuitous thought experiments to follow him. Reading this, I couldn't help but wonder how Dennett's editor let some chapters in, when his point could have been made in a few paragraphs (or sentences). If you want to read every Darwin-related thought that has ever crossed Dennett's mind, this is the book for you. But don't hope for anything like conciseness.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jurij Fedorov

    A philosopher writes about what psychology has to say about the brain and Homo sapiens in 1995. 20 years later this book is outdated. The book itself is written in a boring and dry way. And the final nail in the coffin is the length. 520 pages long, 300 pages too long as he just repeats the same points again and again and uses way too much space to explain simple things. While I do agree with Dennett on most points he doesn't understand human behavior fully in 1995. Today we know a lot more. We A philosopher writes about what psychology has to say about the brain and Homo sapiens in 1995. 20 years later this book is outdated. The book itself is written in a boring and dry way. And the final nail in the coffin is the length. 520 pages long, 300 pages too long as he just repeats the same points again and again and uses way too much space to explain simple things. While I do agree with Dennett on most points he doesn't understand human behavior fully in 1995. Today we know a lot more. We have discovered much, much more inherited behavior and while Dennett does go against the sky hooks in this book he would be even more critical of blank slate and religious explanations of the brain today. Read Moral Animal by Robert Wright instead and a few books on evolution. This one is made obsolete.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Krishan

    A long and diffucult book, but well worth the effort. Here Dennett explores the implications of natural selection on other areas of philosophy. The material ranges far and wide, from human consciousness, morality, the evolution of theories of evolution, consciousness and morality. The meat of the book is devastating criticism of attempts by philosophers and scientists to find attributes that are beyond evolutionary analysis. In particular, he does a thorough job of exposing the shortcomings of t A long and diffucult book, but well worth the effort. Here Dennett explores the implications of natural selection on other areas of philosophy. The material ranges far and wide, from human consciousness, morality, the evolution of theories of evolution, consciousness and morality. The meat of the book is devastating criticism of attempts by philosophers and scientists to find attributes that are beyond evolutionary analysis. In particular, he does a thorough job of exposing the shortcomings of the theories Stephen Jay Gould, Noam Chomsky, and Roger Penrose, all of whom have attempted to put the human mind beyond the reach of science. This book is a MUST read for believers in evolution. It shows how the painful philosophical inversion can and must bet taken all the way down, to the brain, morality, and humanity. Reason and meaning come only AFTER life evolves.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Nicholas

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Goes into depth in places where many books brush over stuff. A lot more theoretical depth than most. Brings up clarifications and important caveats not normally discussed. I like its argumentativeness. It doesn't pander to the people it's at war with. It plants its feet and throws some solid punches. Gives some good critiques of where evpsych goes too far. Quotes: "On this occasion, we are not going to settle for "There, there, it will all come out all right." Our examination will take a certain amo Goes into depth in places where many books brush over stuff. A lot more theoretical depth than most. Brings up clarifications and important caveats not normally discussed. I like its argumentativeness. It doesn't pander to the people it's at war with. It plants its feet and throws some solid punches. Gives some good critiques of where evpsych goes too far. Quotes: "On this occasion, we are not going to settle for "There, there, it will all come out all right." Our examination will take a certain amount of nerve. Feelings may get hurt. Writers on evolution usually steer clear of this apparent clash between science and religion. Fools rush in, Alexander Pope said, where angels fear to tread. Do you want to follow me? Don't you really want to know what survives this confrontation? What if it turns out that the sweet vision - or a better one - survives intact, strengthened and deepened by the encounter? Wouldn't it be a shame to forgo the opportunity for a strengthened, renewed creed, settling instead for a fragile, sickbed faith that you mistakenly supposed must not be disturbed." "There is no future in a sacred myth. Why not? Because of our curiosity. Because, as the song reminds us, we want to know why. We may have outgrown the song's answer, but we will never outgrow the question. Whatever we hold precious, we cannot protect it from our curiosity, because being who we are, one of the things we can deem precious is the truth. Our love of truth is surely a central element in the meaning we find in out lives. In any case, the idea that we might preserve meaning by kidding ourselves is a more pessimistic, more nihilistic idea that I for one can stomach. If that were the best that could be done, I would conclude that nothing mattered after all. This book, then, is for those who agree that the only meaning of life worth caring about is one that can withstand our best efforts to examine it. Others are advised to close the book now and tiptoe away." "Do organisms belong to different species when they can't interbreed, or when they just don't interbreed." "If a single step in the genotype can produce a giant stop in the phenotype, intermediate steps for the phenotype may simply be unavailable, given the mapping rules." "The philosopher Ronald do Sousa once memorably described philosophical theology as "intellectual tennis without a net," and I readily allow that I have indeed been assuming without comment or question up to now that the net of rational judgment was up. But we can lower it if you really want to. It's your serve. Whatever you serve, suppose I return service rudely as follows: "What you say implies that God is a ham sandwich wrapped in tinfoil. That's not much of a God to worship!" If you then volley back, demanding to know how I can logically justify my claim that your serve has such a preposterous implication, I will reply: "Oh, do you want the net up for my returns, but not for your serves? Either the net stays up, or it stays down. If the net is down, there are no rules and anybody can say anything, a mug's game if there ever was one. I have been giving you the benefit of the assumption that you would not waste your own time or mine by playing with the net down." "The temptation, when we think about phenotypic variation, is to adopt a sort of Identikit tactic of assuming that all the minor variations we can imagine on the themes we find in actuality are truly available. Carried to the extremes, this tactic will always vastly - Vastly - overestimate what is actually possible. If the actual Tree of Life occupies Vanishingly narrow threads through the Library of Mendel, the actually possible Tree of Life is itself some rather bushier but still far from dense partial filling of the apparently possible. We have already seen that the Vast space of all imaginable phenotypes - Identikit Space, we might call it - no doubt includes huge regions for which there are no recipes in the Library of Mendel. But even along the paths through which the Tree of Life wanders, we are not guaranteed that the neighboring regions of Identikit Space are actually all accessible." "If you believe: (1) that adaptationism has been refuted or relegated to a minor rol in evolutionary biology, or (2) that since adaptationism is "the central intellectual flaw of sociobiology", sociobiology has been utterly discredited as a scientific discipline, or (3) that Gould and Eldredge's hypothesis of punctuated equilibrium overthrew orthodox neo-Darwinism, or (4) that Gould has shown that the fact of mass extinction refutes the "extrapolationism" that is the Achilles' heel of orthodox neo-Darwinism, then what you believe is a falsehood." "One can hold that all adaptive characteristics are the result of natural selection without holding that all characteristics are, indeed, adaptive." "Meme evolution is not just analogous to biological or genetic evolution, according to Dawkins. It is not just a process that can be metaphorically described in these evolutionary idioms, but a phenomenon that obeys the laws of natural selection quite exactly." "There is no necessary connection between a meme's replicative power,its "fitness" from its point of view, and its contribution to our fitness." "It cannot be "memes versus us," because earlier infestations of memes have already played a major role in determining who or what we are. The "independent" mind struggling to protect itself from alien and dangerous memes is a myth." "Dawkins argues for the biological perspective that recognizes the beaver's dam, the spider's web, the bird's nest as not merely products of the phenotype - the individual organism considered as a functional whole - but parts of the phenotype, on par with the beaver's teeth, the spider's legs, the bird's wing." "Experience teaches, however, that there is no such thing as a thought experiment so clearly presented that no philosopher can misinterpret it." "Showing that a particular type of human behavior is ubiquitous or nearly ubiquitous in widely separated human cultures goes no way at all towards showing that there is a genetic predisposition for that particular behavior." "If a trick is good, then it will be routinely rediscovered by every culture, without need of either genetic descent or cultural transmission of the particulars." "Whereas animals are rigidly controlled by their biology, human behavior is largely determined by culture, a largely autonomous system of symbols and values, growing from a biological base, but growing indefinitely away from it. Able to overpower or escape biological constraints in most regards, cultures can vary from one another enough so that important portions of the variance are thereby explained...Learning is not a general-purpose process, but human beings have so many special-purpose gadgets, and learn to harness them with such versatility, that learning often can be treated as if it were an entirely medium-neutral and content-neutral gift of non-stupidity." "Those who fear the facts will forever try to discredit the fact-finders."

  23. 4 out of 5

    Alex Lee

    Dennett starts this book, careful to align the specific context of Darwin's ideas from a material biology context to one of functionalism. With this alignment, Darwin seeks to atomize all complexity into functional processes so that the material moves within a complexity are atomized into building blocks that allow for a supervenience of complexity to material atoms. For instance, he applies this maneuver from biological evolution to behavior, psychology, culture and ultimately consciousness. What Dennett starts this book, careful to align the specific context of Darwin's ideas from a material biology context to one of functionalism. With this alignment, Darwin seeks to atomize all complexity into functional processes so that the material moves within a complexity are atomized into building blocks that allow for a supervenience of complexity to material atoms. For instance, he applies this maneuver from biological evolution to behavior, psychology, culture and ultimately consciousness. What Dennett notes as being skyhooks constitutes a logical break, such as the jump from ordinal numbers to the smallest limit cardinal numbers. What Dennett calls cranes are moves that constitute supervenience. This mapping is accomplished by Dennett mainly through a series of analogies and then, through a series of quotes that directly address each complexity through a dialectical structure that aligns various quotations that attempt to get at the root of contrary positions. These contrary positions are then atomized in terms of Dennett's algorithmic supervenience in order to be better incorporated into his algorithmic supervenience. If there is one thing I have noticed, it's that the presence of a dialectical structure necessarily supports an ideological position. It's hard to moralize ideological positions of this complexity because of its range, but Dennett wishes to highlight the rational consistency possible in atomizing our most difficult endeavors (ethics, culture, subjectivity). This sounds well and good, but until you understand the larger context it is difficult to address how Dennett's book is an expression of an ideologue. One of the debates in biology is a dispute about how to calibrate survival. Richard Dawkins and Dennett both wish to calibrate adaptation to the level of the gene. Some biologists would calibrate survival to the species, others to ecology. Some to the individual. Each of these optimizations of utility provide a basis for the creation of different terminologies, some of which are impossible given a radically different calibration. For instance, Stephen Jay Gould, who comes from a paleontologist background would calibrate survival to the species and thus has arrived at varyingly different concepts, some of which are nonsensical to someone like Dennett who only sees atomized genes as being the root basis for adaptive difference. When John Maynard Keynes in the 70s introduced game theory to biology he provided a tool for biologists to compare the utility of different survival adaptations. This revolutionized the field but it forced biologists to try and come to a different basis for how to compare adaptations. I recently read an essay exploring the utility of allowing non-queen workers to breed. Wasps and bees do have non-queen workers that can breed, and it has been shown that the queen may kill these offspring but at other times, may allow them to live so that the workers compete with each other. The question in this essay remained unanswerable because the authors of the essay were unable to provide a basis to decide what level to calibrate their comparison to. Since all the workers in a colony were related, should the adaptation be addressed in terms of the individual? Or the colony? Economics often does not have this problem (individual vs society) because the healthiness of each is hidden by the maximal utility of specific groups. Economists are often political simply because they will hide the (dis)favoring of a group by calibrating utility to the society, or to specific individuals in isolation. By NOT addressing his heady position to this basic difference, by explaining the mechanisms of his attempt at a supervenience view of adaptation, Dennett dismisses the veracity of other views by distorting them into failed forms of supervenience. The ideologue that Dennett wishes to superimpose is that of a consistency from the point of genetics. What makes this position obviously an ideologue is the arbitrariness of Dennett's stopgap. Dennett himself provides this analogy when he explains the problem of "levels". He utilizes the example of a computer in order to highlight this issue. When attempting to explain the processes inherent in a Word processing program, Dennett states that trying to understand the program in terms of electrical mechanics, or even at the quantum mechanics level is too much! We shouldn't try and understand the processor in terms of machine language or even at low level code, we should understand it in terms of the operating system environment and the APIs that the word processor utilizes (as well as the user context needs) in order to best understand how a word processor forms. The "baggage" of quantum mechanics or electrical engineering would be too detailed and merely mechanical from the point of view of the appropriate level, because what makes a word processor isn't the mechanical moves of its basic units but the functional consistency of its end result. As is Dennetts style, this analogy is very clear, but when we apply this analogy to Dennett's own arguments (should we not understand consciousness in terms of the needs of the individual? In terms of the need for society) does this not go against a genetic view for why consciousness needed to happen? Does not the view that genetics is the key to EVERYTHING, even religion including too much baggage? After all, might not a colony of conscious robots not having genes but needing the same economic, political coordination also form a religion? Dennett does consider that culture goes far in changing the context of what survival and adaptation means, but he seems to find the "limit cardinal" to be at the level of the gene, rather than providing a multiple level of calibration -- mainly due to this insistence on supervenience being the model we should take. If this is so, however, should he have not started this book talking about Darwinist "survival" of quantum sub-atomic laws persisting in the face of disorder? Dennett is a brilliant man and more impressively a very clear writer of very difficult ideas. But in his haste to push forward a world-philosophy-science view calibrated to that of the gene, he ends up falling prey to the same problem he would accuse others of, that genetics is a "skyhook" given the properties of chemical biology from which genetic properties can be derived. In the end, the rationality he sees as being factual is in fact, to a large degree an arbitrary choice until he is able to demonstrate that other calibrations to other levels, on their own terms, cannot provide enough consistency and explanatory power as this one. Yet even this point is arbitrary, after all, why cannot all of these different calibrations occur simultaneously in competition with one another?

  24. 4 out of 5

    Lora Shouse

    Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is a book of the philosophy of science focusing on the idea of natural selection in evolution. It builds on some of the ideas in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, including the idea of memes as selfish replicators on the same pattern as genes. Dennet’s idea seems to be to counter challenges to the idea that the variety of life on earth could have been created entirely by natural selection acting on naturally occurring processes. He poses as one of the underlying objection Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is a book of the philosophy of science focusing on the idea of natural selection in evolution. It builds on some of the ideas in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, including the idea of memes as selfish replicators on the same pattern as genes. Dennet’s idea seems to be to counter challenges to the idea that the variety of life on earth could have been created entirely by natural selection acting on naturally occurring processes. He poses as one of the underlying objections to this idea the fact that many people, including scientists, are uncomfortable with the thought of everything being just random because they feel it takes all meaning out of their lives. This is where he brings in the meme idea in. He proposes that it is the memes that have created the mind (as opposed to the brain) rather than the other way around. He also discusses quite a bit the idea of evolution as primarily an engineering problem (for both the genes and the memes) using examples from attempts at creating artificial intelligence among other things. Another engineering idea he introduces is the idea of “cranes” as tools of evolution. These are factors that seem to group up in synchronous ways to speed up the entire process of evolution. He contrasts these cranes to what he calls “skyhooks,” cases where the evolutionary process would get a boost from some outside force of mind or design (kind of a deus ex machina effect) that he is looking to disprove. Just how exactly these ideas describe what actually happened during the evolution of life on earth is difficult for just a regular person to say, but the whole concept is interesting. Except for some of the more far-flung philosophical discussions he makes his points fairly clearly. Recommended for people interested in science generally and evolution in particular. Also for philosophers.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Taka

    Really good-- Reading this rekindled my interest in evolutionary theory and I've duly added Darwin's The Origin of Species to my reading list and moved Dawkin’s Selfish Gene up the priority ladder. It's difficult to do justice to a book of such philosophical complexity and richness in a single review, but I will just note down some of the important concepts I’ve learned from this book: 1) Retrospective coronation. It’s impossible to identify the beginning of a species until much later because whet Really good-- Reading this rekindled my interest in evolutionary theory and I've duly added Darwin's The Origin of Species to my reading list and moved Dawkin’s Selfish Gene up the priority ladder. It's difficult to do justice to a book of such philosophical complexity and richness in a single review, but I will just note down some of the important concepts I’ve learned from this book: 1) Retrospective coronation. It’s impossible to identify the beginning of a species until much later because whether X is crowned the founder of a species depends on what happens to X’s offspring. Example: Say tomorrow a virulent virus wipes out 99% of humanity off the face of the earth, and you’re among the lucky survivors with a gene that happens to endow you with an immunity against that particular virus. Now, scientists conduct DNA analyses and concludes that the common ancestor of all the survivors—including you—turns out to be someone named Sara who had the gene mutation necessary to combat the virus. In other words, until the virus wiped out everyone except Sara’s mutated gene—a massively contingent event—Sara could not have been identified as the common ancestor of everyone. 2) Adaptationist thinking. Which is basically reverse engineering the function or purpose of something from its design. An important feature of this type of reasoning is the assumption of optimality: if X would be optimal for doing Y, then it probably was designed for Y. There are at least three considerations that any good adaptationist must keep in mind. The first is the ever-present possibility of opportunistic appropriation of the original function that Mother Nature is so good at (what Gould calls “exaptation”—a delightful word Dennett has exapted to his own usage), which would conceivably give rise to sub-optimal uses or functions. The second is the building process: there may be constraints to the process itself that may leave non-functional features in the final product, or limit the number of possible ways things can be built. This latter point can explain, for example, why most animal species go through very similar embryonic development stages, or in architecture, why the foundations of churches start out the same way. And finally, a good adaptationist should always watch out for the QWERTY phenomenon, where certain features may just be the result of historical happenstances (the dominance of the non-optimal QWERTY keyboard for example). 3) Cultural evolution. How memes take up residence in our brains and ultimately create a person. One important implication here is that thanks to memes and their interplay with our brain’s machinery, we are the only species on earth that can transcend our biological imperatives (take, for example, priests with their vow of abstinence). This evolutionary perspective on culture and personhood shed some much wanted light on the whole debate over the “naturalness” of marriage and other issues concerning human sexuality. Is marriage “unnatural”? Yes, it probably goes against our biological imperatives (if anyone’s interested in the details, check out, for example,Sex at Dawn for the view that monogamy is “unnatural”). But what these people miss—and underestimate—is the role culture plays in forming us as persons. Marriage may be damn hard—and most people do actually fail at it—but it is not impossible because we’re equipped with the brain-meme-culture power to mold this amorphous thing called “human nature.” 4) Biological possibility and evolutionary path. How biologically possible evolutionary paths are constrained by what came before. It is a question of accessibility: it’s more possible for us to, say, grow an extra thumb than grow wings in the next hundred years (though of course, if genetic engineering takes off, the latter might be equally possible). That is, some things are more possible than others. 5) “Threads of actuality” in Design Space. Design Space is basically all the design possibilities that evolution can generate—which is not infinite but vastly huge. The evolution on earth can, in principle, be mapped onto this Design Space, forming a vasnihingly small Tree of Life, or what Dennett calls “threads of actuality” in the immense space of possibility. 6) Convergence. Dennett borrows a chess term—“forced move”—to indicate any design solution in Design Space that are so good that Mother Nature can be counted on to arrive at over and over again. This concept comes in handy when analyzing cultures. A common cultural trait may be indicative of cultural transmission (or cultural cross-pollination) or forced moves in the game of design, i.e. reinvention. So from the fact that, say, two distant cultures had boats, we can’t conclude much about their cultural relationship—because boats are a good design solution to the problem of navigation that they could have been invented separately. In the same way, we can’t conclude from the ubiquity of certain features across human cultures that they are human universals. 7) Finally, good and bad reductionism. Reductionism in itself—defined as the desire to explain and unify everything under a single grand theory—is not bad. What is bad is when this desire gets out of hand, leading to oversimplification and falsification of the phenomenon in question. So bad reductionists, in their zeal to explain everything, try to do too much too fast. B.F. Skinner is a good example. The founder of behaviorism in psychology, he tried explain all of human learning in terms of operant conditioning. The correct response to these bad reductionists is always: “It’s not that simple.” Good reductionists, on the other hand, don’t do this. They want to explain everything with one big, unified theory, but they don’t rush to get there (e.g. think of physicists who dream of the unified theory, a theory to explain both the planetary motions and quantum physics). Despite the book’s overall quality, I did have a few quibbles about this book. First is his lengthy discussion of Stephen Jay Gould and his adherents who rejected—or tried to, anyway—adaptationist explanations. Though interesting in parts (such as Gould's notion of "punctuated equilibrium" and the rate of evolutionary change, which reminded me of N.N. Taleb's "Black Swan" idea). Second, I would have appreciated some discussion of possibly Lamarckian epigenetic inheritance: the inheritance of acquired characteristics such as phobias, propensity for obesity, and immunity to certain viruses through a mechanism that doesn’t change the fundamental structure of the DNA. All in all, a solid overview of evolutionary theory with a feast of food for thought.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Artur Lascala

    This book stands out as a particularly well-written overview of Darwinian theory, which includes a rather long but delightful discussion of its philosophical implications. Darwin's Dangerous Idea builds upon the fact that the process of evolution is an algorithmic one, a mechanism that dismisses esoteric explanations for specific realizations of design. Readers should benefit from being already acquainted with some ideas of evolutionary theory, mostly the works of Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Go This book stands out as a particularly well-written overview of Darwinian theory, which includes a rather long but delightful discussion of its philosophical implications. Darwin's Dangerous Idea builds upon the fact that the process of evolution is an algorithmic one, a mechanism that dismisses esoteric explanations for specific realizations of design. Readers should benefit from being already acquainted with some ideas of evolutionary theory, mostly the works of Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, John Maynard Smith and E. O. Wilson. I suggest at least reading "The Selfish Gene" before grabbing Dennett's book. This is an exciting and rewarding book. The breadth of the author's erudition is mind-boggling and his conclusions are such that my own worldview is being reshaped by the elegance, simplicity and power of Darwin's idea. Highly recommended.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Teo 2050

    13.5h @ 2x. Contents: (view spoiler)[Dennett DC (1995) (27:04) Darwin's Dangerous Idea - Evolution and the Meanings of Life Preface Part I: Starting in the Middle 01. Tell Me Why 01.1. Is Nothing Sacred? 01.2. What, Where, When, Why—and How? 01.3. Locke's "Proof" of the Primacy of Mind 01.4. Hume's Close Encounter 02. An Idea Is Born 02.1. What Is So Special About Species? 02.2. Natural Selection—an Awful Stretcher 02.3. Did Darwin Explain the Origin of Species? 02.4. Natural Selection as an Algorithmic Proc 13.5h @ 2x. Contents: (view spoiler)[Dennett DC (1995) (27:04) Darwin's Dangerous Idea - Evolution and the Meanings of Life Preface Part I: Starting in the Middle 01. Tell Me Why 01.1. Is Nothing Sacred? 01.2. What, Where, When, Why—and How? 01.3. Locke's "Proof" of the Primacy of Mind 01.4. Hume's Close Encounter 02. An Idea Is Born 02.1. What Is So Special About Species? 02.2. Natural Selection—an Awful Stretcher 02.3. Did Darwin Explain the Origin of Species? 02.4. Natural Selection as an Algorithmic Process 02.5. Processes as Algorithms 03. Universal Acid 03.1. Early Reactions 03.2. Darwin's Assault on the Cosmic Pyramid 03.3. The Principle of the Accumulation of Design 03.4. The Tools for R and D: Skyhooks or Cranes? 03.5. Who's Afraid of Reductionism? 04. The Tree of Life 04.1. How Should We Visualize the Tree of Life? 04.2. Color-coding a Species on the Tree 04.3. Retrospective Coronations: Mitochondrial Eve and Invisible Beginnings 04.4. Patterns, Oversimplification, and Explanation 05. The Possible and the Actual 05.1. Grades of Possibility? 05.2. The Library of Mendel 05.3. The Complex Relation Between Genome and Organism 05.4. Possibility Naturalized 06. Threads of Actuality in Design Space 06.1. Drifting and Lifting Through Design Space 06.2. Forced Moves in the Game of Design 06.3. The Unity of Design Space Part II: Darwinian Thinking in Biology 07. Priming Darwin's Pump 07.1. Back Beyond Darwin's Frontier 07.2. Molecular Evolution 07.3. The Laws of the Game of Life 07.4. Eternal Recurrence—Life Without Foundations? 08. Biology Is Engineering 08.1. The Sciences of the Artificial 08.2. Darwin Is Dead—Long Live Darwin! 08.3. Function and Specification 08.4. Original Sin and the Birth of Meaning 08.5. The Computer That Learned to Play Checkers 08.6. Artifact Hermeneutics, or Reverse Engineering 08.7. Stuart Kauffman as Meta-Engineer 09. Searching for Quality 09.1. The Power of Adaptationist Thinking 09.2. The Leibnizian Paradigm 09.3. Playing with Constraints 10. Bully for Brontosaurus 10.1. The Boy Who Cried Wolf? 10.2. The Spandrel's Thumb 10.3. Punctuated Equilibrium: A Hopeful Monster 10.4. Tinker to Evers to Chance: The Burgess Shale Double-Play Mystery 11. Controversies Contained 11.1. A Clutch of Harmless Heresies 11.2. Three Losers: Teilhard, Lamarck, and Directed Mutation 11.3. Cui Bono? Part III: Mind, Meaning, Mathematics, and Morality 12. The Cranes of Culture 12.1. The Monkey's Uncle Meets the Meme 12.2. Invasion of the Body-Snatchers 12.3. Could There Be a Science of Memetics? 12.4. The Philosophical Importance of Memes 13. Losing Our Minds to Darwin 13.1. The Role of Language in Intelligence 13.2. Chomsky Contra Darwin: Four Episodes 13.3. Nice Tries 14. The Evolution of Meanings 14.1. The Quest for Real Meaning 14.2. Two Black Boxes 14.3. Blocking the Exits 14.4. Safe Passage to the Future 15. The Emperor's New Mind, and Other Fables 15.1. The Sword in the Stone 15.2. The Library of Toshiba 15.3. The Phantom Quantum-Gravity Computer: Lessons from Lapland 16. On the Origin of Morality 16.1. E Pluribus Unum? 16.2. Friedrich Nietzsche's Just So Stories 16.3. Some Varieties of Greedy Ethical Reductionism 16.4. Sociobiology: Good and Bad, Good and Evil 17. Redesigning Morality 17.1. Can Ethics Be Naturalized? 17.2. Judging the Competition 17.3. The Moral First Aid Manual 18. The Future of an Idea 18.1. In Praise of Biodiversity 18.2. Universal Acid: Handle with Care Appendix: Tell Me Why Bibliography Index (hide spoiler)]

  28. 5 out of 5

    Jason Schofield

    I have read a lot of smart books. This is the smartest.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    Really liked the first half of the book, but the second half not so much. Do I get bored with books? Or do a lot of writers run out of steam before they're done?

  30. 4 out of 5

    Brendan

    I'm teaching this book for a philosophy of biology course this semester, so I'm read this with its potential for pedagogy in mind. All in all, I thought it was a pretty good explanation and defense of the dominant neo-Darwinian ("adaptationist") paradigm in biology, and that it spelled out some consequences of this paradigm for others area of research (philosophy of mind, linguistics, computer science, even physics). Dennett's basic theses might be summarized as follows: "We are all made of up l I'm teaching this book for a philosophy of biology course this semester, so I'm read this with its potential for pedagogy in mind. All in all, I thought it was a pretty good explanation and defense of the dominant neo-Darwinian ("adaptationist") paradigm in biology, and that it spelled out some consequences of this paradigm for others area of research (philosophy of mind, linguistics, computer science, even physics). Dennett's basic theses might be summarized as follows: "We are all made of up little machines designed by the algorithmic process of natural selection. Biology is a branch of [reverse] engineering that investigates these machines. Since biology is well on its way to explaining mind and language, the prospects for AI are bright." The book's research is a bit dated, but I actually thought that helped a little bit. In particular, we can see now that many of Dennett's scientific and philosophical adversaries (Gould, Chomsky, Fodor, Putnam, E.O. Wilson) were, in fact, on the wrong (or at least losing) side of the debate concerning the potential reach of evolutionary biology into questions of meaning, mind, language, and culture. It's a good reminder that philosophy of science, when well done, can help diagnose and correct errors within scientific practice itself. So, for example, Dennett seems undoubtedly correct when he claims that the neo-Darwinian paradigm can (with a little effort and ingenuity) be used to explain things like the origin of life from non-living materials, and the origin of semantic meanings from purely syntactic base. This is definitely meant to a be a publicly accessible book on science and philosophy, but it's a relatively tough one. Dennett makes a legitimate effort to introduce the reader to some of the main debates in both evolutionary biology and the philosophy of biology, and he presents detailed analysis of many of the more prominent hypotheses and experimental results. Dennett's philosophical background serves him well, here, especially when compared to writers (Dawkins, Gould, Maynard Smith) with a more traditionally "scientific" background: Dennett is not trying to describe his own empirical research, but to offer a well-argued position that takes account of the best arguments on every side.

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