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219 of 233 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars All of life as a simple algorithm
Darwin's idea is very very simple; it goes like this.

1-Organisms pass their characteristics on to their descendants, which are mostly but not completely identical to their parent organisms.
2-Organisms breed more descendants than can possibly survive.
3-Descendants with beneficial variations have a better chance of surviving and reproducing, however...
Published on November 8, 2005 by Vincent Poirier

versus
53 of 58 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Bit Diffuse; 3.5
This very ambitious book is aimed at delivering a comprehensive look at evolutionary theory and what Dennett thinks are its philosophical implications. For Dennett, Darwin's core ideas are among the most important ever formulated and have a transforming effect on many areas of philosophy. This book falls into 2 parts. The first half is essentially a description of...
Published on April 16, 2006 by R. Albin


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219 of 233 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars All of life as a simple algorithm, November 8, 2005
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Darwin's idea is very very simple; it goes like this.

1-Organisms pass their characteristics on to their descendants, which are mostly but not completely identical to their parent organisms.
2-Organisms breed more descendants than can possibly survive.
3-Descendants with beneficial variations have a better chance of surviving and reproducing, however slight, than those with non-beneficial variations.
4-These slightly modified descendants are themselves organisms, so repeat from step 1. (There is no stopping condition.)

That's it. That's all there is to Natural Selection: a simple four step loop; a mindless algorithm that displays no intent, no design, no purpose, no goal, no deeper meaning. This simple algorithm has been running on Earth for four billion years to produce every living thing, and everything made by every living thing, from the oxygen atmosphere generated by plants to the skyscrapers and music created by man. Dennett writes that it is the algoritm's complete mindlessness that makes Darwin's idea so dangerous.

Dennett devotes the major portion of his book to aggressively arguing the above. He reviews how the algorithm could have "primed life's pump" eons ago and spends some time on describing evolution and biology. He argues that biology is engineering and thus reducible to algorithms. He also explains how simple algorithms can lead to computers that play brilliant chess and here he makes an important distinction: brilliant chess doesn't have to be perfect chess.

There is in fact an algorithm to play chess perfectly: examine all possible moves and discard all moves that do not lead to a win. The problem is that the number of possible moves is Vast, and the number of good moves is Vanishingly Small; there isn't enough time in the universe to use this algorithm. Therefore, software designers have developed imperfect but powerful (i.e. heuristic) algorithms that play merely excellent chess. Dennett uses this nuance to refute Godel's and Penrose's objections to Mind as being something "special", something more than the result of a Darwinian process.

Having argued that mind can evolve through a Darwinian process, he goes one step further: ethics can too. Darwin's world is amoral, without good or evil. We have invented the concepts of good and evil and Dennett ends with this. He reassures us that while a mindless, godless, amoral Darwinian process is at the root of everything, we can embrace morality, ethics, and beauty. To quote Dennett, "the world is sacred".

Vincent Poirier, Tokyo
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336 of 365 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good but not for the faint of heart!, July 7, 2002
By 
Atheen "Atheen" (Mpls, MN United States) - See all my reviews
An online friend with similar interests, Steven Haines, recommended Daniel C. Dennett's book Darwin's Dangerous Idea to me some time ago. (Last year, as I recall). So enthusiastic was/is he over it, that he actually sent me a copy! After reading the book--and it took me weeks rather than days to do it--I have to say that I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand I definitely found it dense with information, a thorough critique of Darwinism and its modern variants, and certainly a very interesting work. On the other hand I found it very slow and difficult reading.
The book doesn't simply lay before the reader the author's observations and research on his topic like so many others. In fact Dennett himself points out this fact in his introduction when he notes that the volume is a book on science not a work of science. As he rightfully notes, "Science is not done by quoting authorities, however eloquent and eminent, and then evaluating their arguments (p. 11)." What he does do is describe the topic of Darwinian evolution and its impact on society, then presents the observations and research of diverse professionals in the field, critically dissecting them for the benefit and edification of the reader. It should be noted that Dennett is not himself an anthropologist or biologist, but he is trained in critical analysis. As Distinguished Arts and Sciences Professor at Tufts University and director of that institution's Center for Cognitive Studies, he is considered a philosopher whose specialty is consciousness as high-level, abstract thinking and is known as a leading proponent of the computational model of the mind. As such he is also considered a philosophical leader among the artificial intelligence (AI) community. His credentials, therefore, give him more than adequate qualifications for performing the above noted dissection with precision and thoroughness.
It is sometimes difficult for the average person, especially one who is not specifically trained in a field of research or in the rules of logic, to be objective about the literature in an area outside their specialty. The power of the written word, the forceful current of a persuasive argument, and the care with which confirming evidence is presented and refuting evidence suppressed or camouflaged, all make it difficult to see the flaws in some of the popular works on evolution--or any other science. Therein lies the value of Professor Dennett's efforts in DDI. He carefully points out the errors and strengths of the authors he cites. As he writes, "There is no such thing as a sound Argument from Authority, but authorities can be persuasive, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. I try to sort this all out....(p. 11)." And he does so step by step so that the reader can follow the logic or illogic of the arguments under discussion. In doing so he takes on some pretty visible and popular authors, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins among the better known perhaps, and some very high level math-physics intellects, most notably Stuart Kaufmann and Roger Penrose.
I found that the work almost seemed like a collection of essays of varying length on assorted topics with all of them linked by a common theme. The book is probably best read with this in mind, since it's difficult to digest in a single sitting or even with a single read. (I tend to use post-it-note page markers to highlight points on pages I wish to review after finishing a book. There were so many post-it-notes marking my copy of DDI, that a friend at work pointed out that I might just as well re-read the entire book. He's probably right!) Part of the problem lies in the book's basic premis. As a critique of various works by diverse authorities, it demands that the reader more actively participate in the thought process of that criticism. And that participation requires a rather diverse background of knowledge: anthropology, architecture, artificial intelligence, biology, evolutionary theory, game theory, physics, philosophy, are among some of the topics covered under the cover of Darwin and evolution! It also requires some knowledge of the author's under discussion.
While I don't want to scare a prospective reader, I also think that this book might be a little more than most can or wish to handle. I do think that the person who undertakes to read it, devoting to the project the time and care that it deserves, will come away with, not only a good deal of solid information, but with a first rate training in critical thinking as well!
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226 of 250 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A can-opener for closed minds., January 14, 2001
Recently, a poll on the most notable figure of the previous millennium placed Charles Darwin in fourth place. That's three short of the mark. No concept has been as wide-reaching and influential as the idea of evolution through natural selection. And this book should follow right behind. It is clearly the second most important book published. Dennett's approach deals with Darwin's idea in a philosophical and logical framework instead of a biological one. He declares it the 'universal acid'. Indeed, how does one contain the such a revolutionary notion of change over time? It has affected every aspect of the cosmos from astrophysics to quantum theory. Dennett points up better than anyone that if we truly wish to know what we are in the scheme of things, Darwin's idea is the place to start.
The point of this book is, of course, that Darwin's concept hasn't been universally accepted. Even those who acknowledge evolution may still contest Darwin's mechanism of natural selection through adaptation. Dennett's analysis of iconoclast Stephen Gould's 'punctuated equilibrium' is delightfully scathing, but precisely on the mark. The role of the heretic is to threaten orthodoxy, whether or not the orthodoxy is false. Gould, after trying for a generation to scupper orthodox Darwinism, is here demonstrated to have failed miserably. His attacks, however, have frightened the orthodox without weakening the structure of natural selection. Dennett's superb critique of "punctuated equilibrium" isn't a call for blind adherence to orthodoxy, but instead demonstrates the strengths of Darwin's analysis and why Gould's iconoclasm is misleading. Gould's response to Dennett's clear review of the reality of Darwinism has been petulant stubbornness rather than sound scholarship. That's a pity.
Dennett's prose is delightful. His analysis is direct and pointed in arriving at his conclusions. Taking you step by step through his presentations, it becomes unequivocally clear that his conclusions are iron-clad. Nothing is left hanging - you are brought to each point with a clarity any writer would envy. The book isn't brief, but as Mozart once responded to the criticism that there were 'too many notes' in his opera, what would you take out? Dennett builds his case with confidence, using numerous sources to support his contentions. Coupling a high degree of readability with an equally elevated scholarship is no mean feat, but Dennett achieves it with apparent ease. For contrast, try Michael Ruse's "Understanding Darwin", another philosophical view of the impact of Darwin's idea.
If there's a better book somewhere on the impact of the greatest concept in science, please point it out. Dennett's analysis shows how widely Darwin's idea of evolution through natural selection has permeated through all the sciences and society. The resistance to the concept remains high in the United States, the only facet Dennett is unable to address. He's not alone in that, but with the rise of Richard Dawkins' thesis of the 'meme' perhaps we may soon have an answer.
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60 of 66 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly Easy to Read, Heavy on Logic With Much Detail, November 27, 2005
There have been many comments on this book in the ten years since it was first published. I think what Carl Sagan said about the book is perhaps the most accurate: "a breath of fresh air". Contrary to many other people I thought the book by Dennett was easy to read, very well written, very straightforward, and not some sort of heavy philosophical discussion. He has lots of examples and many references to real science. It even contains pictures and many schematics. The basic point of the book is that despite any rumour or suggestions to the contrary, scientific, social, religious, or otherwise, the basic tenants of Darwin's original ideas for the evolution of the species remains sound, and it is the only viable theory of evolution. If anything, it has solidified its standing as a durable and accurate theory of evolution.

Darwin's theory as we understand it should start with a definition, and here I quote a definition: " The process in nature by which, according to Darwin's theory of evolution, only the organisms best adapted to their environment tend to survive and transmit their genetic characteristics in increasing numbers to succeeding generations while those less adapted tend to be eliminated." Dennett points out in his discussions that many non-evolution scientists, that is, those in other fields of research, do not really understand this simple idea. They still seem unwilling to accept the theory, although adaptive change has been proven in the scientific literature through extensive DNA and protein studies - see for example a more recent article 7 years after the Dennett book: February 28, 2002, Nature, authors Nick Smith and Dr Adam Eyre-Walker. They measure (quantitatively) the adaptive changes.

There are a number of sub-themes here and one being Gould's theories of evolution. Gould was famous and in the public eye, but back behind the scenes in the evolution world among his peers - according to Dennett - it seems that the situation was a lot more turbulent and controversial for Gould. Dennett describes Gould's "punctuated equilibrium" theory, a sort of stop start idea of steps in evolution that was supposed to overturn Darwin. Dennett thinks that the elimination of small Darwin adaptive steps was a confused and half baked idea (my paraphrase). This of course contains much irony since Gould himself wrote Wonderful Life based on the errors of Walcott and the Burgess Shale. As pointed out by Dennett elsewhere, Dennett explained to Gould that he was writing the book and was commenting on the flaws in Gould's theory. He met with Gould and received all his publications from Gould. At first Gould was helpful, but when Dennett found the inconsistencies among them, Gould went silent in their communications for almost a year, and refused to answer questions pertaining to Dennett's questions. The problem is that Gould had flip-flopped and back-tracked over the years until Gould's sudden non-linear jumps, followed by periods of little genetic change, were in fact toned down to just "speed changes" in Darwin's theory of small adaptive steps. It was no longer a revolution in evolution by Gould.

This Dennett book is far ranging and covers many topics in genetics and evolution. It is 18 chapters long and covers the subjects in a chatty style. The book is not a quick read and would take about a week to read, on and off 3 or 4 hours per day. I read about a quarter in my first read and got excited when I got to pages 156 through 163. Here starting on page 156 he describes how the first molecules or structures of life were formed. He tells us about a possibly of a replicating parasitic macromolecule, or a type of partial or pre-virus. It is likely, or at least possible, that first life was based on fragments of proteins and RNA being attracted to silica surfaces or similar. It is all very interesting, especially the idea that catalysts might have increased the mathematical probabilities of interaction to produce life, and that it is based on just common inorganic molecules found in the silica rich clays of earth's streams and lakes. He has numerous other topics such as the tree of life, ideas about the species, Mendel, "the computer that learned to play checkers", so on and so forth.

I would like thank fellow reviewer Stephen A. Haines ("bigbunyip" - or see my profile page and go to Amazon friends) for bringing this book to my attention. I highly recommend this exceptional book. Here are some other sophisticated science books for the general reader:

Genome (1999) by Matt Ridley, The Fabric of The Cosmos (2004) a physics book by Briane Greene, and Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth (2003) by Andrew H. Knoll, and for a light treatment of genetics and society read: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1989 version updated from 1976), or the original book: The Origin of The Species, Charles Darwin, Modern Library (original 1859, reprinted 1993).
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53 of 58 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Bit Diffuse; 3.5, April 16, 2006
By 
R. Albin (Ann Arbor, Michigan United States) - See all my reviews
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This very ambitious book is aimed at delivering a comprehensive look at evolutionary theory and what Dennett thinks are its philosophical implications. For Dennett, Darwin's core ideas are among the most important ever formulated and have a transforming effect on many areas of philosophy. This book falls into 2 parts. The first half is essentially a description of evolutionary theory with Dunnett's elaboration of what he thinks are some of the most important aspects, particularly what Dunnett abstracts as the algorithmic nature of much of evolution. These sections are well done and Dennett is particularly good in scrutinizing some criticisms of mainstream evolutionary theory that have come from significant intellectuals. The late Stephen Gould gets close scrutiny and some of his dissents are refuted effectively. These sections contain little novel and other books, for example, Dawkins' Blind Watchmaker contain similar expositions that are at least as good and more concise. The second half of the book ventures more novelty and controversy. In these sections, Dunnett attempts to apply evolutionary theory to some important philosophical issues, especially those related to his prior interests in the philosophy of mind. This is were his emphasis on algorithmic effects becomes important. Dennett attempts to invoke evolutionary theory in an effort to buttress his prior claim that the human is a "strong artificial intelligence (AI)" type of architecture, an idea that has been resisted vigorously by a number of other philosophers. Some of Dennett's points are inarguable. That the human brain and mind are products of evolution is hard to contest, though some prominent individuals like the famous linguist Chomsky apparently disagree. Dennett also has a fairly conventional but at times confusing discussion of the meme idea and the implications of human learning capacity. When Dennett gets into discussions of his positions on the nature of meaning and the strong AI theory of mind, I don't think his evocations of evolutionary theory are very strong and some of his arguments seem based more on analogy than anything else. The book concludes with a set of chapters on ethics. Dennett has a very balanced view of what can and cannot be accomplished by "sociobiology" but his own excursion into evolutionary theory based moral philosophy is quite vague and more a statement of faith than anything else. If you're a neophyte looking for a good introduction to evolutionary theory, try Dawkins or a similar book. If you're interested in some of the philosophical issues discussed by Dennett and already familiar with evolutionary theory, just read the chapters related to philosophy of mind, the ethics chapters are hardly worth reading. This book is probably of greatest use to individuals with a strong background in philosophy, little knowledge of evolutionary theory, and an interest in philosophy of mind. For them, reading cover to cover makes sense.
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40 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Toss Your Skyhooks or Tiptoe Away From Dennett's Book, October 14, 2005
In the early 90's, Dennett taught a college course on Darwin & Philosophy and most of it is in this book. Dennett examines every corner of evolutionary theory. Some aspects of evolutionary theory are established beyond any reasonable scientific doubt - other fine points are argued within scientific circles. Within this book, Dennett takes on all arguments. In every case, Dennett leads us to conclude that, in biology, nothing makes sense outside the theory of evolution. New discoveries may lead to shifts in the basic theory, but the hope that it will be "refuted" by some earthshaking breakthrough is about as likely as the hope that we will return to the idea that the sun revolves around the earth.

DDI is a huge compilation of ideas. Although published in 1995, it may be the most current and quoted popular source on evolution today. If I had a criticism, it would be that the diversity of its chapters is so vast that not all chapters will appeal to everyone. It is divided into three large parts, the last part being devoted to philosophy of evolutionary science. The philosophy section will be the favorite of some, yet others will not see its value. I would recommend picking and choosing your subject matter out of the excellent table of contents, and taking your time with this book.

With that in mind, prepare for a thoughtful and philosophical journey, and be ready to abandon your "skyhooks." Darwin's Dangerous Idea when applied liberally, throws acid on beloved traditions, but in the end, it may be just what we need to preserve and explain basic values we cherish.

In Dennett's words, "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."
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32 of 38 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good introduction to Dennett's work, January 30, 2000
By A Customer
Daniel Dannett has written numerous books and essays that have attempted to explore (some would say explain) human consciousness in a non-mysterious way (without appeal to special "causal powers of the brain" or an act of creation on the part of some divine being, for example). Darwinian models, in which complex systems or behaviors are built up over time from relatively simple beginnings, have been a key element of much of Dennett's writing. In this book, Dennett tries to clarify what Darwinism is and isn't, and how Darwinian thinking can be used to explain the development of complex phenomena such as thought, language, and culture.
I found this to be a very interesting, lively treatment of how the simple ideas of variation and selection carry over into many domains. This book is less technical than a lot of Dennett's work and is probably a good introduction to some of his ideas. He concludes with a couple of chapters on ethics and morality that I could not make much sense out of; but the discussions of biology and cognitive science are more coherent and interesting. You probably will not agree with many of his conclusions, but the fun is in watching him explicate issues and show some example of how they might be resolved within a scientific, non-mysterian framework.
A good compainion to this might be the book Vehicles, by Valentino Braitenberg.
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41 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Daniel Dennett does Oolon Colluphid proud, July 29, 2004
This fascinating, difficult book has a simple premise: evolution describes a colossal series of individual, algorithmic steps, none of which is accompanied by any specific intention or intelligence.

At first glance this proposition seems non-controversial but, as Dennett makes very clear, the implications of this theory being right are anything but: once you accept this fundamental premise, the ground under certain positions on a number of other hoary old philosophical chestnuts begins to give way:

* God - if there's no need for intentionality or intelligence at any point in the evolutionary process, then as Oolon Colluphid might say, "That about wraps it up for God" - there's no room at the inn (ahem) for *any* God (omnipotent or otherwise) as a creator of the universe, and since religious claims to ethical validity derive from God's status as both the creator and "ruler" of the universe, they too evaporate in a puff of logic;

* Mind/AI - if we evolved from organisms which do not have any form of consciousness, and that process did not itself involve intentionality or intelligence (until the arrival of human intelligence, which Dennett would describe as a "crane") then any account of consciousness *must* be wholly explicable in physical terms, and (though Dennett doesn't say this) it must be conceptually possible, with the correct technology (which we may of course never have), to synthesise not just the functional equivalent of consciousness, but actual consciousness itself.

This second point (but not the extrapolation) is the central thesis of Dennett's equally excellent (and difficult) book "Consciousness Explained". In many ways, I wish I had read Darwin's Dangerous Idea first, for the premises on which Dennett's account of consciousness are based are set out here in a great deal of depth. I don't think I fully "got" Consciousness Explained first time, so I am going to read it again now. After I've read a cheap and trashy thriller first, as a treat for being so good.

As you progress through Darwin's Dangerous Idea, having unequivocally lost the ideas of God and a "soul", a further order of things which are very central to civilisation as we know it start to collapse as well, most notably the ideas that there are external concepts of "right" and "wrong" at all.

Throughout the first three quarters of the book, Dennett is thoroughly persuasive, with the assistance of Richard Dawkins' wonderful idea of the "meme" (which is a great meme in itself); the idea which reproduces itself and mutates within and between human brains: Just as organisms do, "fit" memes find currency and reproduce with ease; and "weak" memes aren't able to occupy enough brains, and eventually die out.

It is analogies like these that display the power of the idea: the Darwinist meme has outgrown biology and is finding application (for which read: reproducing and mutating) in epistemology, ethics, sociology, economics and pretty much every other academic discipline when you stop to think about it. The implications for this, as a unificatory theory of everything, are immense.

Having said all this, Darwin's Dangerous Idea is not without its faults.

At times Dennett is needlessly provocative, and skirts dangerously close to ad hominem arguments in his dismissal of certain competing commentators, most notably Stephen Jay Gould. By being so he gives the impression of not being dispassionate (apologies, by the way, for the double negative, but I mean something different to "passionate"!) about the subject at hand. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it leads a sceptical reader to question how fairly opposing arguments may have been set out: unless one has read the competing works (and I certainly haven't) for all we know, Dennett may be rendering straw men or at least underselling the points lined up against him.

More curiously, having already picked fights with the religious, the spiritualists and the Marxist biologists, rather late in the piece Dennett wades into the ethics debate. He might have been better advised to leave morality for another time. His final two chapters purport to apply the "universal acid" of Darwinism to ethics. You would expect this to be a rout, but after noting (quite correctly) that between them such great minds as Hobbes, Mill, Kant and Rawls failed utterly to formulate any sort of method for adjudicating right and wrong, Dennett reaches not the obvious conclusion that there is no such thing (which seems to me to be the plain implication of everything the evolutionary theory stands for), but instead puts failures of moral judgment down to insufficient information at the time of judgment formation (one never knows *all* the facts, so one can't be expected to get it right) and ventures the suggestion that there is an evolutionarily explicable moral code, but we just can't always access it.

It is not clear why he even thinks this is necessary, especially since the very lesson of evolutionary biology is that it's quite possible for something extremely clever to come about by a concatenated series of not very clever steps. If this is enough to get humans from protoplasm to cave man, I couldn't fathom what Dennett's interest was in defending the notion that from cave man forwards, humans have needed some externally derived conduct code, especially when the one thing which is undeniable from recorded history is that that competing civilisations have never progressed their cause by being nice to each other. The final two chapters in my view can therefore be skipped without significant loss.

All in all, and notwithstanding these minor grumbles, I think this is an extremely valuable and thought-provoking book.

Olly Buxton
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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent philosophical journey, April 15, 2000
By 
TMac Tom (Rising Fawn, GA United States) - See all my reviews
Dennett is on the "strong adaptionist" side of the biological debate that has been going on over the past two decades. He is of course a philosopher of science, not a biologist himself. But, his grasp of the scientific details is firm. Because he is a philosopher, he projects conclusions that scientists normally wouldn't. The "natural selection is a natural algorithm" leaps to mind. There's no way to prove that, but its a wonderful thought experiment, as is his "universal library" analogy at the start of the book. By reading his book, I, as a layperson, came away with a much more coherent perception of what natural selection is and is not than with any book I had read to date. I also came away with a diminished perception of Stephen Jay Gould, whom for the most part I admire as a writer and scientist, but whom I now have some questions concerning motivations behind some of his ideas.
Dennett writes forcefully, which turns some people off. He also occasionally goes too far, such as with his "Christian museum" statement. But his writing never fails to educate and delight. The metaphor of natural selection as "universal acid" is dead-on. From scanning the reviews here, I can tell how some people are still trying to bottle the acid with denial and a lot of whining about the misuses of Darwin's dangerous idea. Darwin is not responsible for these, of course, and they have nothing to do with the scientific validity of his theory. As Dennett points out, what's truly dangerous about Darwin's idea is the validity of it to explain much concerning the natural world, and hence its seductiveness, which can easily lead people to wrong conclusions.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good examination of the philosophical implications of evolution, November 20, 2006
By 
Greg (Australia) - See all my reviews
Daniel C Dennett is a very confrontational philosopher, much like Peter Singer; and like Singer, he is a strong atheist. Dennett will brook nowhere for what he regards is muddled thinking about anything which hides the true nature of things, and for Dennett, natural science and the idea of evolution are the true nature of things.

Dennett is not so crude a reductionist he blandly regurgitates the writings of scientists. As a professional Philosopher, he is deeply aware of the overall tradition of Western philosophy, especially modern philosophy (he is one of the leading experts in the field of cognitive science and philosophy of mind). He feels that Darwin's discovery of biological evolution does not just revolutionise biology, it changes everything. Indeed he remarked in a documentary on evolution that evolution is a more important discovery than either the heliocentric motion of the Earth around the Sun, and the discovery of universal gravitation by Newton.

At the heart of this revolution is the new picture of nature as neither the creation of God or as a teleological mechanism leading somewhere, but as essentially an endless process of change and flux ruled by chance and natural laws. Over time these two things blindly produce the 'apparent' design of living creatures by the well understood mechanisms of evolution, with no need for any designer in the process. For Dennett, this vindicates David Hume's essential arguments against the existence of God, which attempted to demonstrate that the existence of a supernatural being could not be inferred from the perfection of creatures or from the structure of the cosmos.

Dennett accepts there is a 'God', but not the being of monotheistic religion but rather just nature or the universe, in the sense close to Spinoza believed it to be. Dennett believes evolution opens up a wonderful and beautiful vista of endless change and creativity in which nature simply makes itself out of very simple parts (atoms and molecules) and explains coherently and in a perfectly naturalistic way the beauty and order of nature.

In this sense Dennett is well at home with the materialistic tradition in Western philosophy, pioneered by thinkers such as Thales and later by Democritus and Epicurus. The interesting thing is that the mechanistic world picture changes over time, and the speculations of the ancient atomists seem well off the mark today. Who knows what science will discover in 2000 years time, about the universe and the things in it? I prefer to see science as an endless quest, and in my view evolution is not the final say or answer to life's questions. While I believe religion plays a valid part of the endless quest for wisdom about the nature of things, I do not feel it is right or necessary to dismiss evolution out of hand because one has a religious view of the world, nor is it necessary to reject a religious view of the world if one accepts evolution (as Dennet and Dawkins vigorously do in other books).

The primary strength of this work is Dennett's excellent research and understanding of evolutionary biology and related disciplines like sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, while the primary weakness is when his confidence in the theory becomes rigidly dogmatic and in his rather ignorant dismissal of religion in general as a useless attempt by myth-mongers to explain what science now explains.

Some of the things Dennett argued for are now a bit dated as science has moved forwards, but this book is essential reading for anyone curious about the philosophical implications of this scientific theory which is having important influences on how we understand human nature and being, ethical questions, psychology and theories of the mind, and our place in the universe.
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Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life
Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life by Daniel C. Dennett (Hardcover - May 10, 1995)
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