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Customer Review

349 of 379 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good but not for the faint of heart!, July 7, 2002
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This review is from: DARWIN'S DANGEROUS IDEA: EVOLUTION AND THE MEANINGS OF LIFE (Paperback)
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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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 28, 2008 7:42:50 AM PDT
Thank you for the review. What a wonderfully rewarding book! I LOVE that a) Dennett is a great explainer, so the writing is actually quite easy to follow, and b) that what he explains is actually quite deep and difficult, so it requires lots of thought on the reader's part. A great, enjoyable and invigorating workout for the mind.

Posted on Feb 9, 2009 5:43:00 PM PST
From one who has also read the book, great review. I read DDI several years ago when I was trying to raise my scientific literacy quotient. I recall having some of the same insights you so nicely put to words.

DB

Posted on Mar 8, 2012 5:25:42 AM PST
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 13, 2012 4:44:58 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 13, 2012 4:45:30 PM PDT
Sorry AI is not "cognitive science". Dennet is a philosopher, not a scientist. This book is brilliant and it is difficult. No need for put-downs Jonathon. Your review is open-minded and informative Athleen.

Posted on Jun 7, 2014 12:23:50 PM PDT
S. Taylor says:
Haven't read it yet, liked your review- the book sounds fascinating. I'm going to the Galapagos in August to see what Darwin saw before what he saw disappears. But, why should a reader expect this book to be anything other than a difficult read. I say this as a former philosophy major at UCLA.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 24, 2014 9:17:47 AM PST
Atheen says:
I look at it as weight lifting for the mind. The most difficult book I've read is about time: Time's Arrow and Archimedes' Point by Huw Price. It makes me feel like my mind is on a trapeze way up above the ground. Dizzying!
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