146: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel C. Dennett

by Gerard

146.7: Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Touchstone, 1996. 521 pp. ISBN 0-684-8241-X.

Dewey Construction:

  • 100: Philosophy and Psychology
  • 140: Philosophical schools of thought
  • 146: Naturalism and related systems and doctrines
  • 146.7: Evolutionism and process philosophy

What is the meaning of life? That question will get as many answers as there are people on the planet. It’s a heady subject. For this and many other reasons, the Dewey Classification had plenty of subject sections for philosophy and schools of thought. Naturalism—today’s subject—concerns the philosophy that nothing exists beyond the natural (and perceptual) universe. According to this doctrine, there are no supernatural laws, no outside mythical forces, and no “purposes” to nature per se. Seems like fun…

Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (quite a tongue twister) shows how Darwin’s twin ideas of animal speciation and natural selection help to inform our current philosophy. He starts from the basic tenets of The Origin of Species and builds a philosophical foundation that he then uses to counter all the attacks on Darwinian thought. Dennett is clearly not enamored with the leanings of Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin.

One of the best sections of the book is the analogy used to describe the two types of scientific explanation—cranes and skyhooks. Skyhooks are an imaginary physical device that can lift an object without being mounted anywhere; they simply exist in the sky and help to bear a load. Cranes, on the other hand, are real physical objects that have to be anchored in some way and use leverage to lift an object safely. In philosophical thought, skyhooks are explanations that cannot be traced back to a natural law, such saying “because it was made that way” about the shape and usefulness of a bat’s wing. Cranes are explanations are just the opposite; in response to the bat question, you could cite evolutionary evidence and natural phenomena to explain the shape of the wing and that would be a crane. Once you have those two down, Dennett’s book becomes a lot more readable.

The foundation he builds helps guide the reader through the history of evolutionary thought and shows how Darwin’s theories are both fundamentally worldview-shattering and have a direct bearing on our ethics and morality. Granted, Dennett decidedly eschews any use for religious or supernatural thought, so those looking for a particularly balanced assessment of religion and science will be in for a letdown. That said, this is perhaps the most clear book on evolutionary philosophy I have  read in a while, with the author leaving the thick scientific jargon out whenever possible.

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