Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life
Dennett (Daniel)
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Amazon Review

  1. In "Dennett (Daniel) - Consciousness Explained", Daniel C Dennett insists on the importance of considering consciousness from the evolutionary point of view. Darwin's Dangerous Idea elaborates upon his theory of the evolution of consciousness, but also compendiously presents his views on the nature and significance of evolutionary thinking. The eponymous dangerous idea is, of course, the idea of evolution by natural selection, which Dennett esteems as "the single best idea anyone has ever had." When the theory is applied to Homo sapiens, however, the result threatens to be "the universal acid" eating through everything of value and leaving nothing in its place. One of Dennett's prime concerns is to argue that evolutionary explanations can demystify without destroying.
  2. Darwin's Dangerous Idea is divided into three parts.
    • In the first part, "Starting in the Middle", Dennett places the idea of evolution by natural selection in its historical context, then explains it in his characteristically vivacious style.
    • In the second part, "Darwinian Thinking in Biology", he critically examines challenges to Darwin's idea. Connoisseurs of intellectual controversy will especially relish chapter 10 ("Bully for Brontosaurus"), in which Stephen Jay Gould is castigated for misleadingly presenting his views as radical and anti-Darwinian.
    • Finally, in the third part, Dennett discusses the implications of Darwinian thinking for "Mind, Meaning, Mathematics, and Morality." Among the luminaries targeted here are Noam Chomsky and Roger Penrose.
  3. Throughout, Dennett manages to synthesise information from many different fields into one unified view of life and its meaning. Writing with style and wit, he again shows that he merits his reputation as one of the best popularisers of science.
    Glenn Branch

Amazon Customer Review 1 (Positive)
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. There are a number of sub-themes here and one being Gould's theories of evolution.
  4. 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.

Amazon Customer Review 2 (Negative)
  1. I am a physicist by profession and I just finished reading Dennett's book.
  2. I share Richard Feynman's opinion of the usefulness of philosophers in the advancement of our understanding of the physical world ("Philosophy of Science is about as useful to scientists as Ornithology is to birds."), so I would not normally have contemplated reading this book - the only reason I did so was in an attempt to understand the reason for Dennett's vitriolic attacks on Roger Penrose's arguments, based on the mathematical works of Turing and Gödel, for the non-algorithmic nature of human thought.
  3. Having read the book I now understand the reason - Dennett is clearly the high priest of Artificial Intelligence1 through Evolution by Adaptive, Algorithmic Selection and Penrose's 'proof' is a direct and very convincing refutation of Dennett's philosophy. Anything that does not conform to his 'algorithmic' world view Dennett labels and dismisses as a 'Skyhook'. The primary problem that Dennett has to face, it seems to me, is that the fundamental laws of physics are exactly that: Skyhooks ... just like, and with similar validity to, the axioms of Euclid in relation to plane geometry. And everything, including adaptive algorithmic natural selection and the human mind, hangs from those hooks.
  4. Our hope is, of course, to end up with just one Skyhook - a mathematical principle not a supernatural fudge, that explains it all. But don't hold your breath waiting for DD to help us find that :-) because it is very unlikely to come from Darwin's idea (which is indeed both profound and dangerous2). When it is found it will be found by a physicist or a mathematician and, if it cannot be found by them, then ... God help us, we will have to leave the problem with the philosophers ;-)

In-Page Footnotes ("Dennett (Daniel) - Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life")

Footnote 2: Although you might want to read "Smolin (Lee) - The Life of the Cosmos" for an alternative speculation on that.


"Dennett (Daniel) - Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life"

Source: Dennett - Darwin's Dangerous Idea

Author’s Preface
  1. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has always fascinated me, but over the years I have found a surprising variety of thinkers who cannot conceal their discomfort with his great idea, ranging from nagging skepticism to outright hostility. I have found not just lay people and religious thinkers, but secular philosophers, psychologists, physicists, and even biologists who would prefer, it seems, that Darwin were wrong. This book is about why Darwin's idea is so powerful, and why it promises – not threatens – to put our most cherished visions of life on a new foundation.
  2. A few words about method. This book is largely about science but is not itself a work of science. Science is not done by quoting authorities, however eloquent and eminent, and then evaluating their arguments. Scientists do, however, quite properly persist in holding forth, in popular and not-so-popular hooks and essays, putting forward their interpretations of the work in the lab and the field, and trying to influence their fellow scientists. When I quote them, rhetoric and all, I am doing what they are doing: engaging in persuasion. 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, and I myself do not understand all the science that is relevant to the theories I discuss, but, then, neither do the scientists (with perhaps a few polymath exceptions). Interdisciplinary work has its risks. I have gone into the details of the various scientific issues far enough, I hope, to let the uninformed reader see just what the issues are, and why I put the Interpretation on them that I do, and I have provided plenty of references.
  3. Names with dates refer to full references given in the bibliography at the back of the book. Instead of providing a glossary of the technical terms used, I define them briefly when I first use them, and then often clarify their meaning in later discussion, so there is a very extensive index, which will let you survey all occurrences of any term or idea in the book. Footnotes are for digressions that some but not all readers will appreciate or require.
  4. One thing I have tried to do in this book is to make it possible for you to read the scientific literature I cite, by providing a unified vision of the field, along with suggestions about the importance or non-importance of the controversies that rage. Some of the disputes I boldly adjudicate, and others I leave wide open but place in a framework so that you can see what the issues are, and whether it matters — to you — how they come out. I hope you will read this literature, for it is packed with wonderful ideas. Some of the books I cite are among the most difficult books I have ever read. I think of the hooks by Stuart Kauffman and Roger Penrose, for instance, but they are pedagogical tours de force of highly advanced materials, and they can and should he read by anyone who wants to have an informed opinion about the important issues they raise. Others are less demanding — clear, informative, well worth some serious effort — and still others are not just easy to read but a great delight — superb examples of Art in the service of Science. Since you are reading this book, you have probably already read several of them, so my grouping them together here will be recommendation enough: the books by Graham Cairns-Smith, Bill Calvin, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Manfred Eigen, Steve Gould, John Maynard Smith, Steve Pinker, Mark Ridley, and Matt Ridley. No area of science has been better served by its writers than evolutionary theory.
  5. Highly technical philosophical arguments of the sort many philosophers favor are absent here. That is because I have a prior problem to deal with. I have learned that arguments, no matter how watertight, often fall on deaf ears. I am myself the author of arguments that I consider rigorous and unanswerable but that are often not so much rebutted or even dismissed as simply ignored. I am not complaining about injustice — we all must ignore arguments, and no doubt we all ignore arguments that history will tell us we should have taken seriously. Rather, I want to play a more direct role in changing what is ignorable by whom. I want to get thinkers in other disciplines to take evolutionary thinking seriously, to show them how they have been underestimating it, and to show them why they have been listening to the wrong sirens. For this, I have to use more artful methods. I have to tell a story. You don't want to be swayed by a story? Well, I know you won't be swayed by a formal argument; you won't even listen to a formal argument for my conclusion, so I start where I have to start.
  6. The story I tell is mostly new, but it also pulls together bits and pieces from a wide assortment of analyses I've written over the last twenty-five years, directed at various controversies and quandaries. Some of these pieces are incorporated into the book almost whole, with improvements, and others are only alluded to. What I have made visible here is enough of the tip of the iceberg, I hope, to inform and even persuade the newcomer and at least challenge my opponents fairly and crisply. I have tried to navigate between the Scylla of glib dismissal and the Charybdis of grindingly detailed infighting, and give the reader references to the opposition. The bibliography could easily have been doubled, but I have chosen on the principle that any serious reader needs only one or two entry points into the literature and can find the rest front there.
  7. … [snip, acknowledgements] …

    Preface – 11
  1. Tell Me Why – 17
    … 1. Is Nothing Sacred? – 17
    … 2. What, Where, When, Why — and How? – 23
    … 3. Locke's "Proof" of the Primacy of Mind – 26
    … 4. Hume's Close Encounter – 28
  2. An Idea Is Born – 35
    … 1. What Is So Special About Species? – 35
    … 2 Natural Selection — an Awful Stretcher – 39
    … 3. Did Darwin Explain the Origin of Species? – 42
    … 4. Natural Selection as an Algorithmic Process – 48
    … 5. Processes as Algorithms – 52
  3. Universal Acid – 61
    … 1. Early Reactions – 61
    … 2. Darwin's Assault on the Cosmic Pyramid – 64
    … 3. The Principle of the Accumulation of Design – 68
    … 4. The Tools for R and D: Skyhooks or Cranes? – 73
    … 5. Who's Afraid of Reductionism? – 80
  4. The Tree of Life – 85
    … 1. How Should We Visualize the Tree of Life? – 85
    … 2. Color-coding a Species on the Tree – 91
    … 3. Retrospective Coronations: Mitochondrial Eve and Invisible Beginnings – 96
    … 4. Patterns, Oversimplification, and Explanation – 100
  5. The Possible and the Actual – 104
    … 1. Grades of Possibility? – 104
    … 2. The Library of Mendel – 107
    … 3. The Complex Relation Between Genome and Organism – 113
    … 4. Possibility Naturalized – 118
  6. Threads of Actuality in Design Space – 124
    … 1. Drifting and Lifting Through Design Space – 124
    … 2. Forced Moves in the Game of Design – 128
    … 3. The Unity of Design Space – 135
  7. Priming Darwin's Pump – 149
    … 1. Back Beyond Darwin's Frontier – 149
    … 2. Molecular Evolution – 155
    … 3. The Laws of the Game of Life – 163
    … 4. Eternal Recurrence – Life Without Foundations? – 181
  8. Biology Is Engineering – 187
    … 1. The Sciences of the Artificial – 187
    … 2. Darwin Is Dead – Long Live Darwin! – 190
    … 3. Function and Specification – 195
    … 4. Original Sin and the Birth of Meaning – 200
    … 5. The Computer That Learned to Play Checkers – 207
    … 6. Artifact Hermeneutics, or Reverse Engineering – 212
    … 7. Stuart Kauffman as Meta-Engineer – 220
  9. Searching for Quality – 229
    … 1. The Power of Adaptationist Thinking – 229
    … 2. The Leibnizian Paradigm – 238
    … 3. Playing with Constraints – 251
  10. Bully for Brontosaurus – 262
    … 1. The Boy Who Cried Wolf? – 262
    … 2. The Spandrel's Thumb – 267
    … 3. Punctuated Equilibrium: A Hopeful Monster – 282
    … 4. Tinker to Evers to Chance: The Burgess Shale Double-Play Mystery – 299
  11. Controversies Contained – 313
    … 1. A Clutch of Harmless Heresies – 313
    … 2. Three Losers: Teilhard, Lamarck, and Directed Mutation – 320
    … 3. Cui Bono? – 324
  12. The Cranes of Culture – 335
    … 1. The Monkey's Uncle Meets the Meme – 335
    … 2. Invasion of the Body-Snatchers – 342
    … 3. Could There Be a Science of Memetics? – 352
    … 4. The Philosophical Importance of Memes – 361
  13. Losing Our Minds to Darwin – 370
    … 1. The Role of Language in Intelligence – 370
    … 2. Chomsky Contra Darwin: Four Episodes – 384
    … 3. Nice Tries – 393
  14. The Evolution of Meanings – 401
    … 1. The Quest for Real Meaning – 401
    … 2. Two Black Boxes – 412
    … 3. Blocking the Exits – 419
    … 4. Safe Passage to the Future – 422
  15. The Emperor's New Mind, and Other Fables – 428
    … 1. The Sword in the Stone – 428
    … 2. The Library of Toshiba – 437
    … 3. The Phantom Quantum-Gravity Computer: Lessons from Lapland – 444
  16. On the Origin of Morality – 452
    … 1. E Pluribus Unum? – 453
    … 2. Friedrich Nietzsche's Just So Stories – 461
    … 3. Some Varieties of Greedy Ethical Reductionism – 467
    … 4. Sociobiology: Good and Bad, Good and Evil – 481
  17. Redesigning Morality – 494
    … 1. Can Ethics Be Naturalized? – 494
    … 2. Judging the Competition – 501
    … 3. The Moral First Aid Manual – 505
  18. The Future of an Idea – 511
    … 1. In Praise of Biodiversity – 511
    … 2. Universal Acid: Handle with Care – 521
  19. Appendix – 523
    … Bibliography – 525
    … Index – 551

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