Daniel Dennett

Penguin, London, 1995.

"To put it bluntly but fairly, anyone today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution is simply ignorant."

Thus spake Dennett, early on (p.46) in a magnificent conspectus of philosophical thought on the subject of natural selection. In his interpretation, Darwin's dangerous idea is this:

"the algorithmic level is the level that best accounts for... the diversity of species... No matter how impressive the results of an algorithm, the underlying process always consists of nothing but a set of individually mindless steps succeeding each other without the help of any intelligent supervision." (p.59)

As hard as it may be to take in how all this could come about, at least we are spared the embarrassment of explaining the essential goodness of nature in the face of findings like those of biologist George Williams, referred to here:

"in all the mammalian species that have so far been carefully studied, the rate at which their members engage in the killing of conspecifics is several thousand times greater than the highest homicide rate measured in any American city." (p.478)

The question of humanity's place in the grand scheme of things is addressed in connection with the Anthropic Principle, and a comparison made about a type of invalid reasoning which may occur with this principle and with some takes on evolution. Although we might say that we must have evolved to have become the species we are, this evolutionary story is taken by some people to imply that life or humans are a necessary product of evolution, i.e. that we are some kind of planetary (or even cosmic) necessity. Some such view seems to have been held by Buckminster Fuller.

This book is ideal for lending to anybody who imagines that Darwinism is any kind of pushover, or is terminally beset by deep theoretical rifts. It may well inspire the reader, as it certainly did me, to seek out Dennett's other work.




Paul Taylor 2001