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Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life This is my first Dennett book, and he had me worried in the first chapter with all that philosophy Then I recognized something from my study of of effective field theory Here, then, is Darwin s dangerous idea the algorithmic level is the level that best accounts for the speed of the antelope, the wing of the eagle, the shape of the orchid, the diversity of species, and the other occasions for wonder in the world of nature He also refers to Darwin s dangerous idea as a universal acid, able to cut through tough problems, and as the first theory based on an algorithm.Dennett goes on to talk about evolution, so called controversies around Darwin s theory of natural selection, the origin of life, the modern synthesis, genetics, etc This survey was mostly stuff I d heard before, however, because Dawkins.Then Dennett started popping caps in metaphorical asses This is my favorite part He laid the smack down on Noam Chomsky for denying the evolution of language He tore up Gould s spandrels and exaptations He explains why Searle is wrong about artificial intelligence He debunked Penrose s theory of consciousness arising from micro tubules.He also criticizes sociobiology for comically and habitually underestimating human intelligence in the face of forced moves situations with an obvious, best solution.Dennett uses two particularly clever thought experiments in this book One has to do with black boxes and a green, red or yellow light I won t spoil this, but will say it has to do with G del s proof, cryptography, and the philosophy of mind.The second thought experiment is that of people who want to cold sleep until a distant future date They design an autonomous robot programmed to keep them save, and move their frozen coffin around to keep it safe and powered This turns on its head the relationship between genes and the brain What is the brain but a machine built by genes to aid in their survival Fun stuff. Imagine running through an orchard grabbing fruit as you go After you finish, you look back and decide to take a very large bag and stroll slowly through again, carrying a ladder picking the best fruit you can find.Darwin s Dangerous Idea is the first book I have ever read twice in a row Dennett is a master of clear thinking and builds his case through logic, but he surveys a very large territory and I felt upon finishing my first read, that I hadn t grasped all he had to say The second read was as enjoyable but satisfying than the first, but rather than carrying a ladder, I pulled out a highlighter.I ve always been impressed with Charles Darwin and believe that his thoughts on evolution are as significant to the advance of knowledge as the discovery of how to make fire was to the advance of civilization.For the roughly 6 million years since our branch of the tree of life separated from the ancestors we have in common with chimps and bonobos, humanity has lived in ignorance of the reality of how the world around us has come to be.Because of the unbearable anxiety that went with ignorance, it was mandatory that something be thought up to explain things and religions fit the bill The profound difference for those who have lived within the last 150 years, is that mythology can be put aside for truth As far as we know, we, on our little planet, exhibit for the first time the universe coming to understand itself For all the number of earth like planets that may be out there, we don t have a shred of evidence to date that we are not all alone.Life must be rare, if not unique to Earth The dangerous idea that Dennett writes about is that insensate matter has, through blind unguided experimentation under a system of order chemistry and physics with the aid of inconceivable amounts of time, started life itself and then developed to the incredible variety of it we see today through natural selection.Dennett calls this idea a universal acid because it puts holes in all of the tales we have told ourselves about a god above and our place apart from other life on earth It s comforting to believe that there is a benevolent creator and overseer, that there is a me that is not entirely held within the physical body, yet nobody has ever come up with even the slightest evidence that our fond desires have anything to do with the reality of our being.With great patience and a delightful sense of humor, Dennett methodically dismantles every attempt to falsify Darwin s idea Even many scientists, he tells us, are reluctant to part with the idea of a skyhook , an external, inexplicable agent that has somehow intervened to bring us to our condition of mind directedness independent of natural selection.We are definitely special for having language and consciousness and culture Dennett is not belittling mankind, far from it He sees that we are not the helpless automatons that animals are going through the motions of life without the ability to benefit from the rich store of information that we humans have built up and readily communicate to each other We are the masters of our fate because we have the world of ideas that transcends our genetic recipe There is no cause for despair, but there is cause to be wary of those who would like to return to the comforts of mythology.Darwin s Dangerous Idea is not a quick and easy read, but that is because it is so carefully crafted for the mind to follow You cannot be distracted since an idea will be carried through several pages and you need to follow the logic The language is not technical, Dennett peppers the text with everyday phrases He carefully defines his terms but you have to note those definitions because the terms will pop up again and again.Most enjoyable are his mind experiments, his constructions made for the reader to better understand a point What if you were going to go under suspended animation for centuries and had to design a robot to get you through that period of time What characteristics would you give it to best assure your survival Genes have made their way through endless iterations of trial and error and what have they come up with that is successful Look around you to see countless examples in every form of life we know, then look in the mirror.What genes cannot do is produce change anywhere near that of the environment This has been shown repeatedly with great die offs that reduced the number of species up to 90% in episodes over the history of earth In our time, humanity in its effect on the environment has created a hurdle that genetic change is helpless to address The problem for all life is us and our own actions will determine its fate.If you want revelation, put the bible aside and get a copy of this book You won t need a shaman or a priest to interpret for you, all you need is to pay attention to find out how even what seem to be the most impenetrable mysteries become clear when viewed with the dangerous idea of Darwin s that turns out to be illuminating and subject to proof in so many areas.Maybe I ll read it a third time UPDATE 2018, I did. In A Book That Is Both Groundbreaking And Accessible, Daniel C Dennett, Whom Chet Raymo Of The Boston Globe Calls One Of The Most Provocative Thinkers On The Planet, Focuses His Unerringly Logical Mind On The Theory Of Natural Selection, Showing How Darwin S Great Idea Transforms And Illuminates Our Traditional View Of Humanity S Place In The Universe Dennett Vividly Describes The Theory Itself And Then Extends Darwin S Vision With Impeccable Arguments To Their Often Surprising Conclusions, Challenging The Views Of Some Of The Most Famous Scientists Of Our Day If you can approach the world s complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things Daniel C Dennett, Breaking the Spell Is this Tree of Life a God one could worship Pray to Fear Probably not But it did make the ivy twine and the sky so blue, so perhaps the song I love tells a truth after all The Tree of Life is neither perfect nor infinite in space or time, but it is actual, and if it is not Anselm s Being greater than which nothing can be conceived, it is surely a being that is greater than anything any of us will ever conceive of in detail worthy of its detail Is something sacred Yes, say I with Nietzsche I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence This world is sacred Daniel C Dennett, Darwin s Dangerous Idea The latest Terrence Malick film looks amazing Just saw the preview earlier today at the theater It put me in a similar state of mind as this book does It s too bad that I can t find an official trailer online yet When I do find one I ll probably make it known somehow. I hate to abandon a book before I finish it, but some books just force my hand in the matter I picked up this book because I had always heard of Daniel Dennett, as he is one of the infamous Four Horsemen of Atheism also including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchins I wanted to read some of his work, saw this book, and thought the title provocative However, the I read, the of a chore it became just to pick up the book I don t want to give the wrong impression this is probably not a bad book by any means Perhaps if I were intelligent, at least in the area of evolutionary biology and genetics, I d find every word of this book fascinating beyond measure Since I am not, I found the book a gigantic bore, with no hope of being anything than that I find that, ultimately, Dennett lacks the ability to connect with readers who are not as academic as he, such as writers like Dawkins or Sagan can Reading this, I had that same feeling of hopelessness I would get when taking a really difficult class So, with heavy heart, much reluctance, and a huge migraine, I gave up at about Chapter Six Maybe if I get well versed in this subject by a writer that is better able to simplify it, I ll re approach this book or maybe I ll just sell the damn thing back to work. Philosopher Dan Dennett argues that the theory of natural selection is a universal acid , burning through our basic ideas about science and beyond, leaving a completely changed intellectual landscape The revelation that mind did not design life inverts the traditional Christian derived pyramid Dennett shows that evolution needs no skyhooks no supernatural powers and instead produced us and our artifacts and ideas using cranes , artefacts and strategies that accelerate development the image derives from the fact that a small crane can be used to erect a larger one He explains and answers the critiques of opponents to orthodox neo Darwinism, and points out pitfalls on both sides, for example distinguishing sensible in fact, tautological reductionism from greedy reductionism one culprit in the latter category is behaviourism in psychology Skinnerians who believe that all behaviour is a function of operant conditioning The inadequacy of such theories has been demonstrated by, for instance, the research of linguists like Chomsky Dennett points out that natural selection is an algorithmic process, and carefully examines the implications for science and philosophy, including ethics An interesting consequence is support for the possibility of artificial intelligence since consciousness is not magic, but arises from biological phenomena the mind is in the brain He develops the idea of memes as mental analogues of genes symbiotes evolved to live in minds, making persons of the humans they infest and hyper accelerating life s trajectory through design space The prize is, for the first time, a stable system of explanation that does not go round in circles or spiral off in an infinite regress of mysteries Some people would prefer an infinite regress of mysteries, apparently, but in this day and age the cost is prohibitive you have to get yourself deceived You can either deceive yourself or let others do the dirty work, but there is no intellectually defensible way of rebuilding the mighty barriers to comprehension that Darwin smashed. This book is purely about Darwin s theory of natural selection IT S NOT A BIOLOGY TEXT It s not really about biology at all, but the larger, widely applicable algorithmic process that happened to push forth original life It covers a massive span of topics, most rather philosophical, including reactions to Darwinian thought from Neo Darwinist scientists, and others , issues in reductionism, possibility, evolutions of meaning, evolutions of morality, and a lot It s pretty unbelievable how far these ideas go, and this book expands beyond any one sphere of academia Please, don t get all cocky on me Even the Evolutionary Biologists need to read this one. This book felt like brain yoga It was such a delight to follow the logic based arguments Dennett constructs and the analogies he uses and the way he picks apart other people s bad arguments Darwin s dangerous idea, he says, is like a universal acid that corrodes all our faiths and institutions In fighting this, we have mischaracterized it, feared it, or run away from it Dennett confronts it head on and explains what that means for us and for our culture It s not overly scientific It s well reasoned, well written, and a delight to read. This was by far the most annoying book I read in college It isn t just wordy it s bloated with needlesstangents and almost incomprehensibly dense passages I watched an entire college science class misunderstand this for two excruciating weeks of debate and left thoroughly disappointed in Dennett s prose It s simply too long and stuffy for its own good and worse, for a 600 page monolith, it insists on simplifying things to God did it by miracle or natural selection did it mindlessly This is a typical A B argument that a lot of popular scientists and religious types subscribe to because they only have to insult one opponent to win, and no other school of thought is given credibility And oh, how he insults his opposition From his crane and sky hook analogies, to all his snide remarks about religion, to his adopting Darwin s means for arguments about physics and psychology things Darwinians might enjoy, but that Darwin himself would have bawked at , his conclusions are neither philosophically sound nor scientifically useful Dawkins handles memes better, Gould handles evolution better, and pretty much anything on the physics and spirituality bookshelves at the store does those domains better credit. As I neared the end of my second month of slogging through this book, I asked myself, What keeps you going Each night you read a page or two, re read half of those, and then start again the next night The answer is that this book is so dense and well written that it deserves to be savored and thought about For an evolutionary neophyte like myself both in evolutionary time, and in terms of how much I know about the concept of evolution the book has some fairly difficult and complex sections But Dennett overcomes the jargon and is able to distill the ideas to their essence in every chapter I feel VERY good about my understanding of the idea now Particularly useful was the concept of a library with every volume ever written, AND every variation on those volumes Start with Moby Dick as an example This library contains every version of that book ever written, edited or published So what Well, the library also contains a version of the book that begins, Call me Jshmael There are millions of versions of Moby Dick with subtle variations, some which have little or no effect on the readability others are a complete mess that no one would or could read A quick translation to the idea of genes, and we have what Dennett referred to as the Mendelian Library All of the various ways our billions of genes can be arranged, and the results of these arrangements.This library concept illuminates the vastness of design space available for genetics to operate in This metaphor carries much of the book, and has been hugely useful in helping increase my understanding of the ideas behind Darwinian AND post Darwinian evolution remember, Darwin didn t know about genes The only reason I gave this a 4 instead of a five is just because of the sheer burden of having to force myself through the work.


About the Author: Daniel C. Dennett

W.V.O Quine In 1965, he received his D.Phil from Christ Church, Oxford, where he studied under the ordinary language philosopher


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