Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Daniel Dennett in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”


“The Darwinian Revolution is both a scientific and a philosophical revolution, and neither revolution could have occurred without the other. As we shall see, it was the philosophical prejudices of the scientists, more than their lack of scientific evidence, that prevented them from seeing how the theory could actually work, but those philosophical prejudices that had to be overthrown were too deeply entrenched to be dislodged by mere philosophical brilliance. It took an irresistible parade of hard-won scientific facts to force thinkers to take seriously the weird new outlook that Darwin proposed…. If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. But it is not just a wonderful scientific idea. It is a dangerous idea.”

Daniel Dennett (pictured above thanks to Wikipedia) is the Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University.  He is also known as “Dawkins’ Bulldog”, for his pointed criticism of what he viewed as unnecessary revisions to Darwinian Theory by Stephen Jay Gould, who was also a previous subject of this blog, and others.  In popular culture he has also been numbered among the “Four Horsemen” of the so-called “New Atheism”.  His intellectual and academic achievements are many, and his insights into evolution, social systems, cognition, consciousness, free will, philosophy, and artificial intelligence are extremely influential.

Back in 1995, when I was a newly minted Commander in the United States Navy, I happened across an intriguing book in a Jacksonville, Florida bookshop during a temporary duty assignment.  The book was entitled Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life.  I opened it that afternoon during a gentle early spring Florida day and found myself astounded and my mind liberated, as if chains which I had not previously noticed, but which had bound my mind, had been broken and released me, so great was the influence of the philosophical articulation of this “dangerous idea”.

Here, for the first time, was a book that took what we currently know about the biological sciences and placed them within the context of other scientific domains–and done so in a highly organized, articulate, and readable manner.  The achievement of the book was not so much in deriving new knowledge, but in presenting an exposition of the known state of the science and tracing its significance and impact–no mean achievement given the complexity of the subject matter and the depth and breadth of knowledge being covered.  The subject matter, of course, is highly controversial only because it addresses subjects that engender the most fear: the facts of human origins, development, nature, biological interconnectedness, and the inevitability of mortality.

Dennett divides his thesis into three parts: the method of developing the theory and its empirical proofs, it’s impact on the biological sciences, and the impact on other disciplines, especially regarding consciousness, philosophy, sociology, and morality.  He introduces and develops several concepts, virtually all of which have since become cornerstones in human inquiry, and not only among the biological sciences.

Among these are the concepts of design space, of natural selection behaving as an algorithm, of Darwinism acting as a “universal acid” that transforms the worldview of everything it touches, and of the mental concepts of skyhooks, cranes and “just-so” stories–fallacious and magical ways of thinking that have no underlying empirical foundation to explain natural phenomena.

The concept of the design space has troubled many, though not most evolutionary biologists and physicists, only because Dennett posits a philosophical position in lieu of a mathematical one.  This does not necessarily undermine his thesis, simply because one must usually begin with a description of a thesis before one can determine whether it can be disproven.  Furthermore, Dennett is a philosopher of the analytical school and so the scope of his work is designed from that perspective.

But there are examples that approach the analogue of design space in physics–those that visualize space-time and general relativity as at this site.  It is not a stretch to understand that our reality–the design space that the earth inhabits among many alternative types of design spaces that may exist that relate to biological evolution–can eventually be mathematically formulated.  Given that our knowledge of comparative planetary and biological physics is still largely speculative and relegated to cosmological speculation, the analogy for now is sufficient and understandable.  It also gives a new cast to the concept of adaptation away from the popular (and erroneous) concept of “survival of the fittest”, since fitness is based on the ability to adapt to environmental pressures and to find niches that may exist in that environment.  With our tracing of the effects of climate change on species, we will be witnessing first hand the brutal concept of design space.

Going hand-in-hand with design space is the concept that Darwinian evolution through the agent of natural selection is an algorithmic process.  This understanding becomes “universal acid” that, according to Dennett, “eats through just about every traditional concept and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view.”

One can understand the objection of philosophers and practitioners of metaphysics to this concept, which many of them have characterized as nihilistic.  This, of course, is argument from analogy–a fallacious form of rhetoric.  The objection to the book through these arguments, regardless of the speciousness of their basis, is premature and a charge to which Dennett effectively responds through his book Consciousness Explained.  It is in this volume that Dennett addresses the basis for the conscious self, “intentionality”, and the concept of free will (and its limitations)–what in the biological and complexity sciences is described as emergence.

What Dennett has done through describing the universal acid of Darwinian evolution is to describe a phenomenon: the explanatory reason for rapid social change that we have and are witnessing, and the resulting reaction and backlash to it.  For example, the revolution that was engendered from the Human Genome Project not only has confirmed our species’ place in the web of life on Earth and our evolutionary place among primates, but also the interconnections deriving from descent from common ancestors of the entire human species, exploding the concept of race and any claim to inherent superiority or inferiority to any cultural grouping of humans.

One can clearly see the threat this basic truth has to entrenched beliefs deriving from conservative philosophy, cultural tradition, metaphysics, religion, national borders, ethnic identity, and economic self-interest.

For it is apparent to me, given my reading not only of Dennett, but also that of both popularizers and the leading minds in the biological sciences that included Dawkins, Goodall, Margulis, Wilson, Watson, Venter, Crick, Sanger, and Gould; in physics from Hawking, Penrose, Weinberg, Guth, and Krauss, in mathematics from Wiles, Witten, and Diaconis; in astrophysics from Sandage, Sagan, and deGrasse Tyson; in climate science from Hansen and many others; and in the information sciences from Moore, Knuth, and Berners-Lee, that we are in the midst of another intellectual revolution.  This intellectual revolution far outstrips both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment as periods of human achievement and advancement, if only because of the widespread availability of education, literacy, healthcare, and technology, as well as human diversity, which both accelerates and expands many times over the impact of each increment in knowledge.

When one realizes that both of those earlier periods of scientific and intellectual advance engendered significant periods of social, political, and economic instability, upheaval, and conflict, then the reasons for many of the conflicts in our own times become clear.  It was apparent to me then–and even more apparent to me now–that there will be a great overturning of the institutional, legal, economic, social, political, and philosophic ideas and structures that now exist as a result.  We are already seeing the strains in many areas.  No doubt there are interests looking to see if they can capitalize on or exploit these new alignments.  But for those overarching power structures that exert control, conflict, backlash, and eventual resolution is inevitable.

In this way Fukuyama was wrong in the most basic sense in his thesis in The End of History and the Last Man to the extent that he misidentified ideologies as the driving force behind the future of human social organization.  What he missed in his social “science” (*) is the shift to the empirical sciences as the nexus of change.  The development of analytical philosophy (especially American Pragmatism) and more scientifically-based modeling in the social sciences are only the start, but one can make the argument that these ideas have been more influential in clearly demonstrating that history, in Fukuyama’s definition, is not over.

Among the first shots over the bow from science into the social sciences have come works from such diverse writers as Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997)) and Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (2010)).  The next wave will, no doubt, be more intense and drive further resistance and conflict.

The imperative of science informing our other institutions is amply demonstrated by two facts.

  1. On March 11, 2016 an asteroid that was large enough to extinguish a good part of all life on earth came within 19,900 miles of our planet’s center.  This was not as close, however, as the one that passed on February 25 (8,900 miles).  There is no invisible shield or Goldilocks Zone to magically protect us.  The evidence of previous life-ending collisions are more apparent with each new high resolution satellite image of our planet’s surface.  One day we will look up and see our end slowly but inevitably making its way toward us, unless we decide to take measures to prevent such a catastrophe.
  2. Despite the desire to deny that it’s happening, 2015 was the hottest recorded year on record and 2016 thus far is surpassing that, providing further empirical evidence of the validity of Global Warming models.  In fact, the last four consecutive years fall within the four hottest years on record (2014 was the previous hottest year).  The outlier was 2010, another previous high, which is hanging in at number 3 for now.  2013 is at number 4 and 2012 at number 8.  Note the general trend.  As Jared Diamond has convincingly demonstrated–the basis of conflict and societal collapse is usually rooted in population pressures exacerbated by resource scarcity.  We are just about to the point of no return, given the complexity of the systems involved, and can only mitigate the inevitable–but we must act now to do.

What human civilization does not want to be is on the wrong side of history in how to deal with these challenges.  Existing human power structures and interests would like to keep the scientific community within the box of technology–and no doubt there are still scientists that are comfortable to stay within that box.

The fear regarding allowing science to move beyond the box of technology and general knowledge is its misuse and misinterpretation, usually by non-scientists, such as the reprehensible meme of Social Darwinism (which is neither social nor Darwinian).**  This fear is oftentimes transmitted by people with a stake in controlling the agenda or interpreting what science has determined.  Its contingent nature also is a point of fear.  While few major theories are usually completely overturned as new knowledge is uncovered, the very nature of revision and adjustment to theory is frightening to people who depend on, at least, the illusion of continuity and hard truths.  Finally, science puts us in our place within the universe.  If there are millions of planets that can harbor some kind of life, and a sub-set of those that have the design space to allow for some kind of intelligent life (as we understand that concept), are we really so special after all?

But not only within the universe.  Within societies, if all humans have developed from a common set of ancestors, then our basic humanity is a shared one.  If the health and sustainability of an ecology is based on its biodiversity, then the implication for human societies is likewise found in diversity of thought and culture, eschewing tribalism and extreme social stratification.  If the universe is deterministic with only probability determining ultimate cause and effect, then how truly free is free will?  And what does this say about the circumstances in which each of us finds him or herself?

The question now is whether we embrace our fears, manipulated by demagogues and oligarchs, or embrace the future, before the future overwhelms and extinguishes us–and to do so in a manner that is consistent with our humanity and ethical reasoning.


Note:  Full disclosure.  As a senior officer concerned with questions of AI, cognition, and complex adaptive systems, I opened a short correspondence with Dr. Dennett about those subjects.  I also addressed what I viewed as his unfair criticism (being Dawkins’ Bulldog) of punctuated equilibrium, spandrels, and other minor concepts advanced by Stephen Jay Gould, offering a way that Gould’s concepts were well within Darwinian Theory, as well as being both interesting and explanatory.  Given that less complex adaptive systems that can be observed do display punctuated periods of rapid development–and also continue to have the vestiges of previous adaptations that no longer have a purpose–it seemed to me that larger systems must also do so, the punctuation being on a different time-scale, and that any adaptation cannot be precise given that biological organisms are imprecise.  He was most accommodating and patient, and this writer learned quite a bit in our short exchange.  My only regret was not to continue the conversation.  I do agree with Dr. Dennett (and others) on their criticism of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), as is apparent in this post.

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