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.

Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”

The human species owes a debt of gratitude to Charles Darwin that can never be adequately paid.  The young Darwin struggled against being categorized in a society and a time that very much needed to categorize everything and everyone.  His early education demonstrated his keen, inquisitive, and initially undisciplined mind, the last aspect of his character that he himself noted and worked to overcome.

The grandson of two prominent British abolitionists, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood, he was born to a outwardly conventional but inwardly nurturing and intellectually stimulating family.  He was an avid amateur naturalist as a boy and studied to follow in his father’s footsteps as a physician.  He attended medical school but his other interests caused him to neglect his studies.  Frustrated with what they viewed as his lack of prospects, his family enrolled him in divinity school to become an Anglican pastor.  Darwin studied little but found his passion in the then craze of beetle collecting and was influenced by the Cambridge naturalists that pursued what was then known as natural theology–the proposition that the best way to know the deity was to understand its creation.  His main studies focused on what we now identify as botany, geology as well as biology.

After receiving his degree Darwin proceeded to take literally the remonstrance of Alexander von Humboldt to travel widely in order to gain new knowledge.  Upon the recommendation of his mentor at Cambridge, John Stevens Henslow, he was taken aboard the HMS Beagle’s South American surveying expedition as a self-financed naturalist.  This voyage was a transforming one for Darwin and it is best to use his own words from his autobiography in order to describe the nature of that transformation.

“…Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers… for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality… But I had gradually come by this time, i.e., 1836 to 1839, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow at sign, &c., &c., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian.

…By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported, (and that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become), that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost uncomprehensible by us, that the Gospels cannot be proved to have been written simultaneously with the events, that they differ in many important details, far too important, as it seemed to me, to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eyewitnesses; by such reflections as these, which I give not as having the least novelty or value, but as they influenced me, I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. The fact that many false religions have spread over large portions of the earth like wild-fire had some weight with me. Beautiful as is the morality of the New Testament, it can be hardly denied that its perfection depends in part on the interpretation which we now put on metaphors and allegories.

But I was very unwilling to give up my belief… Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all of my friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine.”

Having thrown off his preconceived beliefs it is during the voyage of the Beagle that Charles Darwin became the modern scientist that we recognize today–the author of On the Origin of the Species and The Descent of Man. Much has been made of the theological nature of his origins and how they influenced his thinking, arguing that the construction of his scientific hypotheses and theories are simply an extension of a type of belief–what today is called “scientism.”  But this is ignorance and the term cannot exist except in the minds of those making the assertion.  It is only when Darwin freed himself from the shackles of his mind that he was able to perceive nature as it is, not as human society would have it.

It is obvious to us now as we read his narrative that he had not completely freed himself from the prejudices of his time.  But such is the nature of human advancement.  I was told early on as an historian that I would learn more about the prejudices of 18th century Britain by reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire than I would learn of the Roman Empire–and it turned out that my mentor was correct.

But, unlike Gibbon, Darwin’s influence transcends his time because of the enforced discipline that he imposed on himself and his method.  After that seminal voyage it took years of study and the weight of evidence before Darwin felt confident to publish his findings–and then only under great pressure since other scientists were coming to the same conclusions and threatened to precede him on his life’s work.  His  theory is an elegant one and the weight of its elegance is found in his overview of it in the introduction to the Origin:

“As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.”

Darwin’s observations and theory–which is supported by over a century and a half of observation and confirmation–is one of the key insights in our understanding of ourselves and our position in the universe.  This insight is the basis of all other wisdom and in my opinion, without it, there can be no human knowledge that reaches the level of wisdom that means anything.  For all of the knowledge that we have amassed since that time–in geology, astronomy, biology, physics, neuroscience psychology–in virtually every area of learning–is informed by this one core insight into human existence and what we define as life on our planet.  To understand the evolution of species through the agent of natural selection one must understand the age of the universe, of the earth, the dynamics of geology, and the common origins and interconnection of all life.

As such, its implications transcend science in the same way as its implications transcended biology.  In 1995 the cognitive scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote his famous work summarizing the influence of Darwin’s theory on modern science and society in the late 20th century.  He gave the book the title Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.  As I sit here in the year 2014 it is apparent that this is still the case, not because what he observed was dangerous to know, but because it is an idea that undermines its opposite–the belief that the strong have a right to dominate the weak, that people can be categorized with some intrinsically superior and others inferior, and that economics and its handmaiden philosophy trumps all other insights when it comes to human society and conduct.

Many evolutionary biologists and others in the sciences with whom I have corresponded and discussed their bewilderment and frustration at the resistance, particularly in parts of the United States, to the essential wisdom in Darwinian observation.  It is, I think, because they do not see the historical and societal implications which is explained in their own theory.  It is dangerous not only because of its transcending of theological explanations of the universe and human existence, but also because it challenges the structure of social control and hierarchy upon which so many societies have been built in the modern era.  In understanding our own biology as primates, our instinctual feelings of tribalism, kinship, and hierarchy are still too strong in many areas to fully liberate us from our self-imposed shackles. Darwinian insight challenges the primacy of these feelings.

So dangerous was (and is) Darwin’s idea that Herbert Spencer published an alternative evolutionary theory based on earlier, pre-scientific evolutionary beliefs, known as Lamarckian evolution, which came to be known as Social Statics and has since been misnamed Social Darwinism.  This competing theory, most recently given new clothes by politicians and followers of the writer Ayn Rand, is without scientific merit, socially abhorrent, ethically indefensible, and sociopathically cruel.  So old is this meme that Darwin himself challenged this twisting of evolutionary theory:

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”

Regarding the societal implications of his theory he wrote in his work The Voyage of the Beagle:

“If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”

Darwin at first avoided addressing the more controversial aspects of his theory and it took him some time to decide to publish The Descent of Man.  From this work his theory of sexual selection alone stirred more than a little backlash.  As such, we see only glimpses of his view that the understanding of the nature of life would be a liberating force, not only in the sciences but in society at large.  But Darwin struggled with the questions of the “ought” as opposed to the “is” and, in the end demurred. It is only now that his descendents in the sciences have broached the topic once again, most significantly in the book The Moral Landscape, by the neuroscientist Sam Harris.

In the end, though, Darwin’s most significant contribution may result in the survival of our species.  The common origins that we all share and the combined threats of Global Warming, nuclear proliferation, and other weapons of mass destruction threaten our very existence, not to mention the extra-planetary threats from asteroids and comets.  The insights of Darwin and his descendents in the sciences may very well prevent our own self-destructive tendencies and ignorance from causing our extinction from this tiny planet.