Darwin & The Dangerous Idea

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By Mark Lundegren

I’d like to introduce you to an important, though not-so-new book you may have missed – I had until recently.  This book tells a broad and provocative story about the world we live in, and that lives in us.  Contained in this storyline is a new way of thinking about our world, one that to many people is inspiring and to others is, well, dangerous. 

The book I am introducing is Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, by Daniel Dennett.  As I said, though first published in 1996, I found the book only recently but wish I had read it sooner, so revolutionary and perspective changing are its many ideas.  And I say this as someone who was fairly well-acquainted with Darwin, before coming to Dennett.

Whether you know Darwin and evolutionary theory well or not, I’d encourage you to learn about Dennett’s not-so-new and not-so-little book, now that you’ve found it through me.  I say this with special emphasis if you are a thinking person, one with some stamina and one who is not afraid of some danger.

The Dangerous Idea

As I mentioned, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea has been available for some time, but is a work that will remain vibrant and timely for many years to come – owing both to its topic, and its ambitious scope and notable depth.  In the Dangerous Idea, Dennett offers a thorough survey of evolutionary thinking during and since Darwin’s time, and then a careful outline of the many important implications of this still new way of thinking for people everywhere.

I should add that Dennett’s ambitious book is more dangerous than it might be in other hands, owing principally to the fact that Dennett is a philosopher, and a thorough and rigorous one at that, rather than a biologist focused on the progression of flora and fauna.  As one discovers, again and again, during the course of the book, putting Darwin’s “dangerous idea” in the hands of a careful and probing philosopher is much like putting a powerful new navigation aid in the hands of a skilled adventurer. 

The result is as one might expect: a series of remarkable excursions and discoveries that penetrate more deeply into the still barely known world around us, and into the world within us, presented with a satisfying balance of eagerness and precision.  The full effect of Dennett’s book is an unexpected exploration and exploding of important ideas, new and old.  In the hands of Dennett, the Darwinian compass is indeed a dangerous and far-reaching catalyst.

If you are willing to stay with Dennett for the full length of his journey, you may be surprised at its adventures and distance traveled.  Philosophically, we are left with nothing less than the sky above us shattered, and everything that was once sacred and hanging from it at our feet, littering and rattling against the earth, which now is suddenly at once more steady and ancient, but fresh and sprouting and uncertain too.  Is this a much too dangerous prospect for you?  I suspect that some adventurous souls will read a chapter or two of Dennett and say, yes.  And while they may choose to turn from the dangerous idea, they may find that even they must look at the world with changed eyes.

Since we are the topic of finishing this book, I should make clear, that while Dennett’s book is intended for the general, educated reader, it is not an easy book.  It is simultaneously dense and weighty, and rigorous and inspired.  And it is as deep as it is far-reaching and ambitious.  Dennett’s pages spill over with an examination of bold and controversial ideas, revolutionary perspectives on evolution and life, and fundamentally new metaphors for understanding the natural and human world around and within us, all written with a thoroughness that requires attentive reading. 

It took me several weeks of persistent effort to give Dennett’s book a careful and considered read, and having read it carefully, I can say that it was deserving of this care.  I am thankful I was considerate with his book, even if I had early doubts and was tempted to turn to an easier and more predictable treatment of the topic.

I will also say that I finished The Dangerous Idea a somewhat different person from the experience, feeling strangely larger and smaller at the same time, with a changed perspective on the world and a sense that I am permanently affected, or infected, by the many mind and mood-altering ideas in Dennett’s book.  Could I offer a higher compliment to any author on any topic, or a more tempting invitation to personal danger?

Entering the Danger Zone

Other reviewers have called Darwin’s Dangerous Idea one of the best expositions of the science and implications of Darwin and modern evolutionary theory ever written.  Though not my area of expertise, I suspect it is just this and will be still more than this for many readers, as it was for me, so impressive and sweeping in scope is Dennett’s book.

Dennett begins with the world before Darwin, and with the pervasive dualism between mind and matter that existed in the thoughts and hearts of people throughout most of our civilized history.  Even in the writings of Locke and Hume, leading thinkers writing only a hundred years before Darwin, it seemed to them impossible that mind could come from anywhere but above and beyond, from a separate, lordly realm apart from the physical world.  In retrospect, this once unshakable bias seems remarkable today and is a lesson for us all.

Darwin of course showed that mind could indeed evolve from matter, and that it was even highly likely this was the case.  He came to this revolutionary conclusion through a striking and strikingly simple insight into natural life, even as Darwin himself struggled with the implications of his insight.  This new world view is one we are all now acquainted with as modern people, to varying degrees and whether we embrace it or not.  It is thus easy to forget the revolution that Darwin’s idea was only several decades ago, and to be unaware of its many and rapidly growing implications.

Dennett leaves us wondering early in the book: how could earlier people not have seen or taken seriously the possibility of mind evolving from matter?  What are we similarly not seeing or taking seriously today that future generations may know as true?  And why do so many intelligent people among us today have such difficulty coming to grips with Darwin’s simple idea, even as his theory matures and is supported by an increasing heavy weight of evidence?  In other words, why is Darwin’s simple idea so complicated, and so dangerous?

One answer to this last question is of course that people often have exaggerated fears about the unknown.  We may be genuinely afraid of the implications of Darwin’s idea, afraid that the implications are in fact dangerous to society and our world within it.  Perhaps we fear it is still too dangerous for others to embrace, or to admit we accept Darwin’s proposal in polite society.  As Dennett asks, and as we should ask, is evolutionary thinking a universal acid, likely to destroy everything we hold as valuable, and leave us nothing in return?  Put another way, is there enough in Darwin’s idea to assure us that there will at least be a toehold to begin again with, to reach up and rebuild our culture with in the light of the destructive aspects of the idea?

More questions, I know, but Dennett assures us early on that Darwin need not lead to chaos and nihilism, that culture can survive and even thrive in new ways after Darwin, and that philosophy and ethics can be made more unified, re-grounded and re-naturalized, and truer and better by Darwin.  But before he can explain why this is so, he first ensures we know Darwin’s idea and modern evolutionary thinking thoroughly, including the many controversies it inspires in our time from within and without.  It is this prerequisite to a discussion of post-Darwinian human culture and ethics that is the main body, and the largest and most important part, of Dennett’s brilliant book.

The Evolution of Evolution

As you may know or suspect already, evolutionary theory is much changed in the more than one hundred years since Darwin’s theory of natural selection first came to prominence, but its core idea and principal tenets are still firmly and now probably permanently in place.  Darwin proposed that life emerged and developed through a long process of iteration, of nature and then life building on itself:  complex molecules emerging from simple ones, simple life from complex molecules, complex life from simpler living entities, and finally humans and human culture from complex animal life.  The primary mechanism of this evolution from the simple to the complex was mutation (random variation) and selection (proliferation of variations with relative advantage in the game of proliferation).  Darwin theorized all this, Dennett reminds us, even though he had no understanding of modern genetics or microbiology in his day.

Darwin’s frequently assaulted but firmly intact core idea, Dennett explains, is only part of the story of the development of evolutionary theory since Darwin.  Dennett suggests we think of Darwin’s core idea as the imperturbable calm at the center of an enormous storm – an apt metaphor given its spiraling controversy – with the majority of evolutionary theory’s own evolution since Darwin lying out in the swirling, undulating arms turning round this unmoving core. 

Through a careful, even painstaking, journey into the storm of evolutionary thinking since Darwin, Dennett makes clear that Darwin’s central idea has not been diminished or narrowed in any way.  Indeed, the many controversies around Darwin’s core tenets have made his basic theory stronger and more proven, better articulated, larger and more encompassing, and even more subtly and carefully espoused, all in similar measure and combining to elevate the core idea.

Using an implicitly Darwinian form of reasoning, Dennett suggests that the strengthening and extension of Darwin’s hypothesis through its popular and scientific controversies – its success and survivability amidst environmental pressures – is deeply suggestive of the correctness of its core and the strong conceptual legs Darwin’s idea likely has to thrive and proliferate over time.  Evolutionary theory’s resiliency against attack has been impressive to date, as Dennett catalogs and explains.  The idea’s increasing, rather than decreasing, strength even points at its completeness and soundness as the foundation for a new, unified, and scientifically based theory of life.

Assaults on the theory of evolution have generally contended that the idea fails to adequately explain the nature of all things in an integrated way.  These assaults have come from theologians, from scientists of higher and lower caliber, and from others fascinated with or fearful of the dangerous idea itself.  Dennett reviews in detail the most important of these assaults, showing how and why they have failed to unseat evolutionary thinking, and even how they generally have worked to strengthen Darwin’s idea by forcing a more careful articulation of evolution’s inner workings.

Evolution, for Dennett and others working with in science and philosophy today, can be thought of simply, and productively, as a means to explore a particular design or possibility space.  This exploration may not be thoughtful and efficient per se, but it is a reliable and robust approach in a world where time is nearly limitless or where time can be compressed with computers or engineered life.  Dennett shows how we can see this process of exploration play out in the natural world, in computer-simulated worlds, in the creation of human artifacts and culture, and in the development of human science and thought. 

As an explorative and iterative process, all evolution is subject to certain design opportunities and constraints.  Much of evolutionary science today, in fact, is concerned with understanding the basic opportunities and constraints that exist in any design or possibility space, including nature, and perhaps improving on them.  As these tenets of evolution are discovered and validated, they combine to form the full emerging science of evolutionary dynamics and the dominant new material of philosophy in our time.

We know already, for example, that each design choice opens and closes doors, and that all evolutionary processes and creations have inherent and similar forms of order in them.  Evolution in design space is not a completely random process, even though evolution certainly uses randomness to move about in its explorations of what is possible.  This idea of implicit order amidst randomness and common to all evolutions foreshadows the possibility of the new cultural toeholds I mentioned.  In truth, they actually may form sure footholds and perhaps strong and lasting rock to build on and with in the changed new world after Darwin.

Culture’s Evolution

As Darwin’s original idea has strengthened and grown more complex, it has become a source of learning and inspiration for many, and an increasingly troublesome specter for others.  Dennett explores these both perspectives on Darwin and the prospect of further evolution and proliferation of evolutionary thinking, returning to his earlier question: Is Darwin’s idea a universal acid, one that will dissolve all we hold dear and leave nothing in its aftermath? 

The last part of Dennett’s book considers how an evolutionary worldview, and evolutionary processes themselves, might create new social order and human understanding – building on, transforming, and not just destroying the world and worldviews before Darwin.  I expect some people will be unmoved by Dennett patient reasoning and discussion of alternatives, in part because they might not read him carefully enough and, for those that do, because Dennett’s suggested path is still a theoretical one, implicitly and ironically involving a leap of faith of sorts, even if this faith is well-considered. 

This new leap before us involves a faith in the findings of science, including its findings about our human nature and nature’s tendencies toward evolutions and organization.  We are asked to move toward our humanity and to trust ourselves and the visible world, letting go of external and unseen divinity, and this is perhaps what may be most troubling to those that are most troubled by Darwin.  We are called to consider nature’s and our own innate ability to organize and evolve society, without help from above.  Here, I might suggest, no doubt unconvincingly for some, that divinity and humanity may be the same thing, twice named.

Other reviewers have criticized Dennett for not articulating a post-Darwinian system of ethics and culture deeply enough, particularly on par with the rest of the rich work that is the Dangerous Idea.  I too wanted more than he offers us in this area.  But I suspect this fault with the book may have more to do with the newness and breadth of the topic of the natural formation of culture than Dennett’s handling of it.  People may want Dennett to work with clay that has been found but not yet readied for the potter’s wheel, or I should say the philosopher’s.

Many of us will insist on a clear new system of culture and ethics, based on evolutionary theory, before they agree to move in Dennett’s direction.  This may be wise, or it simply may just be procrastination.  After all, what are the chances that a new, post-Darwinian system of culture will appear whole and fully clothed, at any time, and be acceptable to people resisting Darwin and who view the idea as dangerous today? In truth, like all living things, culture evolves and is in transition.  We will never reach a point where a final cultura firma rises up under foot and allows us to step to new and more open life, without the requirement of movement. 

In my own work, to get around the impasse of such all or none thinking about the future, I have proposed we think about our culture and needed change practically and incrementally.  My suggestion is to pursue those aspects of life today that most directly and obviously promote our health, in its fullest sense to include our survival and adaptiveness, and to make those changes in our lives and society that most directly progress us toward this goal. These tasks are entirely in and for our time, admittedly with an eye to the future, but leaving a similar charge to each successive generation.  While arguably a heuristic, the approach re-focuses us our own optimization and our responsibility for it, employs evolutionary method and successive iteration, and is tolerant of our inability to know the distant future and the inevitability of error in every generation.  The net effect is to permit us to explore our optimality, individually and collectively, in the ever changing design space that is time.

Unless we are reborn into a wiser epoch, most of us will have little choice but to leap at some point on faith and instinct into the world after Darwin, in the spirit of our health and humanity, or with some other aim in mind.  We will have to do this at least to influence what is pursued and created in our time and for the future by our existing culture.  In truth, the emerging word we may fear is already with us, however immature and whether we care to look at it or not, and alongside the familiar and slowly aging remnants of the pre-Darwinian world. 

As Dennett reminds us, our human culture is like the natural world that contains it, inevitably and ever evolving in possibility space, ever closing and opening doors to us in the world, and never stopping sufficiently to let the most prudent of us take in its full scope.  I suspect the next age and future human cultures will most resemble and be influenced by those of us today whose leap to the future is most timely and those who are most adept in our leaps.

Dennett finishes his book by summarizing new (in 1996) and quite important ideas about how the human mind and our human culture can be conceived of as evolutionary processes in themselves.  The new Darwinians see changing human thought as an obvious and unique form of evolution, one that marks a significant break from our purely organic origins in the natural world – and one that is related to but distinct from the evolution of our physical brains.  In a sense, they suggest that we may already be divine, if divine means to be able to absorb and transmit culture and ideas, and to select and sustain what is best in us into the future.

From this emerging perspective and adaption of the idea, the principles and workings of society, and even our individual psyches, can be seen as the ongoing products of the same evolutions that have made and are remaking the rest of the living world around us.  As an analog to genetic mutation and selection, Dennett introduces us to memes (discrete thoughts and ideas), a new paradigm that evolutionary theorists now use widely to explain and model the evolution of our minds and cultures.  In doing this, they may be unexpectedly moving us closer to a deeper understanding of the path to a post-Darwinian world and culture that so many want.

If we all live in cultures and inhabit minds that were formed by evolution and are subject to continual selection forces – in this case via meme (thought) rather than gene mutation and selection – do we really have as much to fear from evolutionary thinking and the prospect of culture allowed to evolve based on Darwin’s idea?  And do we actually owe so much to and must we regard as inviolate those cultures that came before us? Perhaps not, if we begin to view our pre-Darwinian cultures and outlooks as earlier facts of evolution, including their frequent use of the idea of external divinity and their curious inhibition of worldviews without duality (an idea which troubled even Darwin).  I suspect that many will remain cautious in the face of this new thinking, but really what is the ground upon which we all stand? 

Paradoxically, Dennett points out that it is precisely this common stance of principled cautiousness which modern Darwinians predict to emerge as a design feature within an evolving system of culture and cognition.  After all, individuals in our society, or in any society of semi-autonomous entities, all benefit from cooperation but must guard against harmful actors and ideas in their interdependent world.  Doesn’t a cautious mindset (a cautious meme-set) promote just this individual and cultural stance?  And if this phenomenon is predictable, even all-too-predicable, isn’t it thus ultimately indefensible in any particular guise, especially as functional and more beneficial equivalents emerge or are created in the name of progress?

These and other important questions are the now fertile soil of new wave of post-Darwinian science and philosophy.  We are right to expect and demand much from their practitioners and proponents, especially if this movement is to guide future human thought and culture.  But perhaps we are equally right to expect that sound, functional, and even improved and healthier new systems of culture will naturally emerge from Darwin’s idea (sandwiched as it was between Copernicus’ and Freud’s dangerous ideas, neither of which undid us) in an iterative, automatic, and natural way.  Culture has arguably always formed this way and is now proving highly adaptive to modernity’s many unprecedented onslaughts.

This idea, culture and thought as an evolved artifacts, embodies Dennett’s final and, for me, quite compelling formulation:  that culture and ethics have always evolved and will continue to evolve from what came before the selection forces – extending our human lineage and building on our already existent humanity.  In this sense, our principal future challenge is to work practically with the unique and perennial opportunities and constraints waiting for us in the rich design spaces that are our world, our culture, and our psyches today.  In other words, the theorizing must end, and compelling work aimed at progress can and should ensue.

The greatest threat to human growth, to the evolution of our culture and selves, Dennett notes in closing his book, is fundamentalism, the shutting off of inquiry and the slowing of human movement in new forms and directions.  Absent such an inhibition of inquiry, Dennett believes we are right to expect robust, evolving systems of human and humane culture to continue in the face of Darwin’s idea.  We should of course expect the most successful aspects of these systems to eventually stand on their own, to grow stronger and longer legs, to naturally nurture and be nurtured by us, and to meet our physical and spiritual needs as people.  But now, all this must occur without the easy, but newly untenable, cheat of handrails from the sky.

Such wide-ranging musings and ideas come from Darwin’s, or should I say Dennett’s, Dangerous Idea.  It you have the strength and curiosity, I encourage you to explore this long-legged work and provocative place in design space, and to see what possibilities it engenders for you.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

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