- Paperback: 586 pages
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition (June 12, 1996)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 068482471X
- ISBN-13: 978-0684824710
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars See all reviews (214 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #83,533 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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DARWIN'S DANGEROUS IDEA: EVOLUTION AND THE MEANINGS OF LIFE Reprint Edition
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One of the best descriptions of the nature and implications of Darwinian evolution ever written, it is firmly based in biological information and appropriately extrapolated to possible applications to engineering and cultural evolution. Dennett's analyses of the objections to evolutionary theory are unsurpassed. Extremely lucid, wonderfully written, and scientifically and philosophically impeccable. Highest Recommendation!
From Publishers Weekly
Dennett's philosophical argument in support of Darwinism was a National Book Award finalist.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
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!
Daniel Dennett breaks his book up into three sections: the first deals with exactly what Darwin's dangerous idea is; the second section more or less examines the biology of evolution; and third part looks at how Darwinian evolution has transformed our understanding of who and what we are.
What is Darwin's dangerous idea? Darwin's idea is the single best idea anyone has ever had, argues Dennett. It is also the most dangerous one. What he means by this is that it burns, like a "Universal Acid," through any misconceptions we have about nature. Special Creation is burned away; the Cosmic Pyramid of God, Mind, Design Order, etc. is annihilated; Plato's essentialism is destroyed; Locke's primacy of Mind is no more. Darwin single handedly demystified the world with his reductionism and usurped all of our traditional understandings in one swoop. He replaced a "skyhook" designer with an algorithmic "crane." And, yes, without a designer, Dennett quipped, there can still be design via this algorithmic process in nature and the statistical probability of design arising after billions of years of hit and miss tries. This is where intelligent design theorists get it wrong: there can be design without a designer. Moreover, this is where "greedy reductionists," who altogether dismiss design apparent all around us, also get it wrong.
Science offers us a totally new perspective of the world and who and what we are, and, hence, science and philosophy forever are intertwined. As with the Copernican Revolution where the shot was heard around the world, Darwin's dangerous idea is still making its way around the world. It took centuries before everyone accepted Copernicus' heliocentric model and it may take the same time or more for the Darwinian Revolution to dominate.
Should we fear this dangerous idea in anyway, asks Dennett? Absolutely not! We just need to grow up, he says, and embrace the underlying beauty of it. Some philosophers have accused Dennett of being the very thing he criticizes, a greedy reductionist. But this seems to be an unfair assessment of Dennett, especially in light of the fact that he yearns to see the magnificence within the natural world via evolution.
I loved the opening quote of this section: "Nothing make sense except in light of evolution" (Theodosius Dobzhansky). This quote sums up the theme of section two. The "Laws of the Game of Life" (i.e., biology which he calls engineering) can only be understood in terms of evolution. The laws and regularities we witness in nature really rely on blind, meaningless chaos. There is no Universal Mind or Wizard of Oz behind the curtain pulling the strings. Instead, the world we live in today is a result of what Crick called "frozen accidents." Sure, Paley witnessed design and he was right to. But design is the accumulation of billions of years of a mindless, algorithmic process. Nietzsche's Eternal Recurrence theme is placed in this section to stress the meaninglessness of life and the only meaning we find is that which we create ourselves.
I especially appreciate his discussion of "intellectual tennis" in section two. Defenders of Special Creation want to play "intellectual tennis" with the net down on their side when serving (referring to not following rules and not offering evidence) but up for the opponent. This is certainly unfair in the field of science.
Finally, Dennett exerts a lot of energy challenging Gould's perspective of evolution and science. He refers to Gould as the "boy who cried wolf" and even had references to him as a "bully." Why is Dennett so taken back by Gould? Well, quite simply, he accuses him of misrepresenting Darwinian evolution. While Gould brilliantly contributed the idea of spandrels to evolutionary theory, his resistance to gradualism, Dennett contends, is off putting. Other controversies, including Teilhard's Omega Point theory, are shot down in this part of the book.
The third section of the book starts with meme theory. Dawkins' memetic understanding of cultural evolution gets the thumbs up from Dennett. Language itself plays a crucial "crane" role in the development of the human mind, though Chomsky has resisted the interplay between Darwinian evolution and linguistics. Instead, Chomsky, along with Searle, contends Dennett, understands the mind more as a "skyhook" than a "crane," especially in both of their rejection of Artificial Intelligence as modeling human intelligence. Moreover, Penrose's meme of Godel's Theorem as proof against AI needs to be "extinguished," says Dennett.
Having highlighted the power of Darwin's dangerous idea still further, Dennett turns his attention to morality and evolution. Are sociobiologists being greedy reductionists by reducing morality to a product of evolution? Certainly, he petitions, we need to understand ethics along Darwinian lines but perhaps not to the level the greedy reductionist would take us. Here Dennett argues that we are not set creatures but that we have the "mind-tools to design and re-design ourselves" and even to re-design moral codes themselves.
In the conclusion of the book Dennett suggests that upon closer inspection Darwin's dangerous idea is not a "wolf in sheep's clothing," but a "friend mistaken as an enemy." Here he is referring to the famous story Beauty and the Beast. Instead of being a terrifying beast, Darwin's dangerous idea is really "a friend of Beauty, and indeed quite beautiful in its own right."
One of the best books I've ever read.