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Evolit: Week 5--Beyond Biological Evolution

Paul Grobstein's picture

Anne and I are glad you're here, to share thoughts about the story of evolution and the evolution of stories. This isn't a place for polished writing or final words. It's a place for thoughts in progress: questions, ideas you had before, in or after class, things you've heard or read or seen that you think others might find interesting. Think of it as a public conversation, a place to put things from your mind or brain that others might find useful and to find things from others (in our class and elsewhere) that you might find useful. And a place we can always go back to to see what we were thinking before and how our class conversations have affected that. We are looking forward to seeing where we go, and hoping you are too.

As always, you're free to write about whatever you thought about this week. But if you need something to get you started, how are you currently feeling about biological evolution as an example of continuing and expansive change in the absence of either a starting plan or a goal/objective? about Dennett's characterization of evolution as a "universal acid" and how he characterizes/justifies what is saved or lost?

Sophiaolender's picture

Skyhooks and cranes

What I found most interesting about this week's discussion on skyhooks and cranes was the idea of reality and fantasy, and the way these ideas can be linked. Critics, not just in biological evolution, but in all areas, are always trying to find faults. It is almost magical when we can provide these critics with a way to make skyhooks into reality. It stands for something deeper, I believe. When we can prove that the unbelievable ideas of evolution can exist in the realm of our understanding, we can perhaps gain faith in the idea of an ultimate Truth. And even if Truth is always a bit farther than we can grasp, it is reassuring to at least believe that it exists. This constant game of turning skyhooks into cranes is a constant justification of how amazing our world is.
ccrichar's picture

skyhooks and cranes

Skyhooks and Cranes are metaphors that do not appeal to me in context to the course.  Skyhooks cannot be foundational and Cranes are foundational.  Skyhooks need to involve the galaxies in order to be foundational and Cranes just need the earth to stand upon.  I do not understand skyhooks as a foundation.  A foundation needs something to stand upon and skyhooks has none other than the galaxies.  And then which galaxy does it stand upon?
kgould's picture

I brought up the Vampire

I brought up the Vampire paper I wrote because it really frustrates me that these individuals are not actually reading my paper. They are not looking at the information that I am presenting to them, specifically, that the vampire legend is based off of diseases that caused "vampire-like" symptoms. Instead of considering this possibility, they immediately leap to how much they like Edward Cullen, or why they think vampires are real-- not in a biological sense, but instead in a bridging fantasy and reality kind of way. It relates to the idea of fiction and non-fiction and Dennett's idea about skyhooks and cranes. 

These individuals are completely immersed in their skyhooks. They insist that their skyhooks are cranes, that there are reasons why vampires exist, and here they are, and there may not be a lot of concrete data behind it but darn it! they believe. Belief is what makes a skyhook. 

Evelyn's post really makes me think, as well. I know that we talked about early science fiction, the concept of man entering space-- and how it was fiction. No one believed that it could happen. People postulating about the future spouted wistful ideas of flying cars and vacations on the moon. Those were skyhooks... and now they are cranes. In 1969, we got onto the moon. So when does fiction become non fiction and when does fantasy become reality?

Should I stomp on these vampire lovers, or should I just let them go on their merry way, despite the fact that they have no real evidence to back up their claims?... In that same way, am I attacking other ideas that rely almost entirely on faith? Do I (or did I) have faith in anything?

I hope that this evolution problem can be solved. I'm still not sure where I stand... up until now, I thought that people should stop shoving their beliefs down other people's throats, onto schoolchildren. But if I believe in evolution... trust in science... than what am I shoving around?

Rachel Townsend's picture

Dennett is getting to me...

I was really interested by our conversation in our small group on Thursday.  Prof Grobstein's questioning of our feelings about things that it is okay to stomp on and not okay to stomp on provided an interesting problem to think about.  Where does all of this stop? Trying to follow many of these ideas logically through to an end is quite a mind-blowing experience. I've found that since this discussion I've been coming back to this idea that if we believe in evolution that means believing in the randomness of life on Earth. I've really struggled with this because, as we have discussed, we as humans tend to create "skyhooks" in our need for explanations for WHY things happen.   I have realized since the conversation how much this is a part of how I live my life and I've been quite struck by it.  I, like Prof Grobstein, think that evolution is quite a good story, but I'm not sure that I like it so much now that I am realizing all of its implications.
LS2's picture

I posted this over the

I posted this over the weekend, but it does not seem to be here! Trying again...

I was trying to reconcile our discussion of "cranes" vs "skyhooks" with earlier thoughts that had come up in class. I kept coming back to our debate regarding the differences between science and religion, which seems to parallel Dennett's distinction between a "crane" and a "skyhook." One thought that we at first seemed satisfied with was the notion that religion is a moral guideline or code, whereas science was more about disseminating apparently supportable information. We asked whether science could be a kind of religion, and if I remember correctly, our class estbalished that based on this distinction, it could not. I wonder though, about the manner in which "health" has been promoted as a kind of religion via science in our country. What we know to be unhealthy, such as obesity or smoking, has taken on moral and ethical dimestions in the United States.  We position those who are seen to have little regard for their health(despite myriad extentuating circumstances that may be out of these peoples' control) as pariahs of our health-conscious country. 

When scientific discoveries or information become affixed to moral codes, what is the "crane" and what is the "skyhook"? 


Hilary McGowan's picture


After departing from the classroom, I began to try to make as many analogies as possible. During dinner, while working at the library, frantically doing homework as the rush of Hellweek set in- thinking of logic, reason and life. Dennet seemed so certain on his analogy of the 'un-logical' as a hook dangling from the insubstantial clouds while logic and reason were firmly grounded in physics and those good ol' laws we all abide by. The more I tries to create analogies that stated this likeness, the more I realized that they weren't really all that far apart. Almost anything can be proven if it is proven in the right way. This just depends on how philosophical you want to get and how many hours you have to while away to the World.

Despite having talked to death the idea of truth, I am still incredibly fuzzy on the entire issue. It's almost like the more I delve into the idea, the more I feel like I am balancing on a tipping rock on the top of a precipice. It's dangerous, frightening, and odd. I want to be able to point to something and know whether it is real or not, whether it is, in fact, the truth. Yet now I am just revolving now in a desperate circle to even find the right place to point. The more we question reality, the more questions are formed that simply can't be answered with a Universal answer.

That is unless we build a super-computer to actually figure out what the question was in the first place.

p.s. I am also exceptionally proud of my horrible drawing of a crane. :)

unidentifiedflyingobject's picture

Dennett, stomping, and respect

I'm not a religious person, and for many years I actively looked down on religious people. Now I'm not really sure what I think about religion and I'm mostly just apathetic about the issue entirely, although I can honestly admit to looking down on religious fanatics. But as soon as I started reading Dennett I couldn't help but dislike him.

Dennett does stomp, exactly the way that we discussed him stomping on Jurassic Park in Professor Grobstein's section last week. His apparent idol, Darwin, may have started a movement of stompers like Dennett, but he was about as far away from stomping as thinkers can get. Darwin wasn't interested in blowing up deeply-rooted traditions, but the condescending way that Dennett seems to talk about religious thought implies that he does.

My favorite section of the reading is on page 153, when Dennett talks about a reader of his first draft who criticized some of his viewpoints. The reader claimed that Dennett couldn't treat the hypothesis of God like a scientific hypothesis, and, as quoted by Dennett, "it is not just unsympathetic, [the reader] claimed, but strictly unwarranted for me simply to assume that the scientific method continues to apply with full force in this domain of faith."

Well, I agree with the reader. Furthermore, I think Dennett's long, pretentious, and half nonsensical defense of himself (located on pages 154-155) doesn't really explain anything. I do find him unsympathetic. And I don't think that authors like him will ever help us progress or better understand the tensions between the stories of science and religion.

kbrandall's picture

False Analogies?

In the reading for our next class Dennet writes about genes vs. memes, and the basic analogy that's been drawn between biological evolution and cultural evolution, which is the next major topic he tackles. His description of the argument over how alike these processes are or can possible be-- how far to take the analogy between genetics and "memetics"-- ended up highlighting for me a basic problem that I have with his arguments (probably not what he intended).

We've talked a lot about the many analogies that Dennet uses to describe different scientific theories for us, but how reliable are those analogies? He lets us know that he is writing a story, not a formal argument, but can I really allow myself to be convinced of a scientific theory by a book with so little science in it? The analogies may make scientific concepts more accessible, but I'm afraid that too much is being lost in the extra layer between the ideas themselves, Dennet's descriptions of them, and my own understanding of those descriptions.

aseidman's picture

Questions today, not long winded overly personal anecdotes.

One thing I had trouble with in the Dennett reading from last week was the concept of evolution as an Algorith. I'm no math scholar, but as I understand (or thought I understood) it, an algorithm is something that performs a certain process through a series of steps to create the same result every time. How is it possible that evolution, which certainly does not create the same result every time, is an algorithm? The steps are perhaps the same, but the results are so incredibly varied due to circumstances that I just don't get the connection. I'd love for someone to spell it out for me in layman's terms.

 Some lovely individual above (though unfortunately I seem to have lost the post where this was mentioned) discussed how she/he had trouble with evolution as an algorithm because of all the possible outside forces(see, the Big Bang) that could be affecting it. That also factors into my confusion.

kcofrinsha's picture

Week 5 Response

I'm generally confused by this week, but the difference between truth and Truth left me especially confused. In class on Tuesday I felt as if I was supposed to already have a sense of what the difference is when in fact I have no concept of two kinds of truth.

I've always been willing to accept that truth doesn't (or might not) exist. I have an odd memory of crying as a young child while my mother tried to comfort me (I have no idea what I was upset about). She told me that I have her to support me no matter what, she'll always love me, etc. I responded by asking something along the lines of "How do I know you're real? How do I know anybody but me is real? Maybe I'm creating this entire world in my mind and in reality I'm the only thinking being that exists."  I think my mother was very surprised by this line of questions and said something along the lines of "because I do exist."  Basically she was telling me that her existence was a truth I just had to believe in. This story demonstrates why the idea that truth doesn't exist makes me uncomfortable.  I don't necessarily believe that truth (regardless of capitalization) exists, but it upsets me to think about it too much. This brings me back to my original point. How does capitalization change the meaning of the word truth? I don't think it does. I think the question is not about what type of truth exists, but about what truth is.

dshanin's picture

Truth, truth and skyhooks

Our discussion on Thursday focused on Dennet's use of the skyhook vs. crane methods of categorizing information.  The most interesting part of the discussion for me was when we attempted to place Truth and truth into the system.  Truth is the fundamentalist ideal, it is the perfect template that all earthly believers aspire to but can never fully reach.  truth, by contrast, is the non-fundamentalist ideal that is readily achievable on Earth because it is wholly based on our own subjective nature.  I believe that Truth is the skyhook while truth is crane.  Truth is based upon an entirely independent set of objective values and simply cannot be built from a foundation on our world, it requires anchoring in a whole other realm.  Meanwhile, truth is absolutely anchored in our, built from our shared beliefs until it can truly stand.  Yet there is a limit to how far simply extrapolating our beliefs can take us, there is a limit to how high the crane can be built.  That final gap between the limit the of our subjective reasoning and and an unreachable objective goal is the difference between a skyhook and a crane   

eolecki's picture

Week 5

What I found really interesting during last Tuesday’s discussionis that we begin again by discussing the idea that there is no “Truth” and howwe should balance subjectivity and fact. This has been a major point of the class, not even science has definite answersor proven truths.  We talked abouthow we should not just believe things like the earth is round just becausesomeone told us.  However, as soonas this conversation was finished we moved on to talk about evolution and allof a sudden random “facts” were just given out.  The atmosphere started with no oxygen and the firstorganisms were single celled. Through all this I couldn’t help but think what if I raised my hand andsaid I don’t believe you, you don’t know that’s true.  But if we all always did that then no one would ever learnanything.  I think simply taking somethings to be true is necessary in order to accomplish anything.  There needs to be a very carefulbalance between subjectivity and truth. 

Lisa B.'s picture

Week 5

As we discussed in class Darwinian evolution can be applied to both science and philosophy. Although it may be difficult to summarize the implications of evolution by natural selection, Darwin's Dangerous Idea has made it even more difficult. The correlation between natural selection and "universal acid" has forced me to examine natural selection outside of biology. I was hesitant to explore beyond scientific theory to a philosophical level, but Dennett's digressions on the meaning of life were too fascinating to resist. "Universal acid" is the eloquent rationalization of Darwinism that I have been searching for:
"The most common fear about Darwin's idea is that it will not just explain but explain away the Minds and Purposes and Meanings that we all hold dear. People fear that once this universal acid had passed through the monuments we cherish, they will cease to exist, dissolved and unrecognizable and unlovable puddle of scientistic destruction" (82).

aybala50's picture


I just want to say that this week has been hectic and confusing to me. I don't understand really the difference between Truth and truth? I thought we had decided that truth doesn't really exist (or that could have been in my Neurobiology class). If we are thinking about truth as a conclusion to a question that will not change, then how can truth exist? Thinking about it from the loopy science perspective if we keep observing to find new observations, then truth whether with a 'T' or 't' should not exist. 
eglaser's picture

Oh, Dennet

I appreciated Abby's comment in our discussion group this thursday, "Dennet proves that evolution doesn't need a plan, that doesn't meen there wasn't one!" It finally put into words what had been bothering me about his book. Is Dennet's arguement really logically convincing? Does he ever actually, unequivocally prove that there was not a plan in the act of creation? Does Darwin's work prove this? Ignoring for the moment his tone, which does not help his arguement, can you view his book as the dispassionate work he claims it to be?

I liked that he delivered his work as a challenge t oingage the reader in his argument but his work takes as many leaps of faith as the theories he is trying to refute. His explanation of evolution as an algorythmic process relies on skyhooks as much as the theory of creationism. Neither can be refuted, who can say that the world was randomly created or not? What evidence could there be? His theory is thrown out to explain what he does not understand and that one process is meant to serve as our alternate theory to creation. Well, if it's that simple then that must truely be a universal acid, destroying the need for any other explanations, serving as our skyhook with no need for support or foundation in empirical evidence.

enewbern's picture

Dennett's "universal acid"

During the last class discussion we touched on the idea of Darwin's theory of evolution being like a universal acid, but I am not so sure that I buy that. I don't think that Darwin's theory overshadows all the previous theories and stories that are out there. I think that it can co-exsist with some of them and also just because it is currently backed up by scientific fact doesn't mean that is a more definite answer to the question. I mean what is a fact really. How can that truly be defined? I believe that we tried to define it earlier in the semester, but I was not satisfied with what was brought up. I think that Creationism can be just as valid an explanation for the past as Darwin's theory though I don't particular advocate it myself. I gues I find Dennett's condemnation of the ideas outside of Darwin's kind of horrible. No one person should be declared more correct than another person. Back to my original point, I think that relating Darwin's evolution to a universal acid is just not an acurate metaphor.

ccrichar's picture

Danderous Ideas and Darwin

In our discussion of "lucid metaphors and charming analogies..." I was lost in the correlational to the point of the text.  I would like to know how "greedy and non-greedy reductions" simplify a story? The "universal acid" theory can burn through another theory if it is backed-up by newer empirical evidence.  Also, I never understood "skyhooks and cranes".  However, I think I understood "Bladwin Effect" to mean that we are all moving in the same direction to form a combined effect.  I think there are too many "charming analogies" that distract my comprehension of the point being made.  I am spending too much time trying to understand these analogies.
Marina's picture

In our discussion on

In our discussion on Thursday many pointed out the differences between the writing styles of Dennett and Darwin in their presentation of their ideas. I found Darwin to be dry and neutral in the presentation of his ideas with a sort of take it or leave it kind of attitude. However, Dennett strikes me as very passionate and opinionated - almost to a fault. It seems to be that some of his more contentious statements would be offensive to those who consider themselves as more religious. His statements exactly, "Anyone today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution is simply ignorant- inexcusably ignorant." Such adamant and assertive language is almost shocking after reading Darwin's more humble approach in Origin of Species.

Dennett also urges readers to see evolution as an algorithmic process. This confuses me- Isn't an algorithm a specific set of steps that lead to one and only one answer? If this is true then this is in opposition to the belief that evolution is a completely random process. I don't see how these could logically come together.

jrlewis's picture

You can take the chemist out of the chemistry course, but…

As a chemistry major, I was intrigued by Dennet’s use of the universal acid concept.  A universal acid is an imaginary and impossible substance that eats through any container.  In ordinary chemical terminology, an acid is a substance capable of donating protons; it increases the concentration of protons in solution.  A more sophisticated chemical definition of an acid is a substance that accepts electron pairs.  Both these characterizations imply a duality; an acid requires a base with which to react.   In the case of a universal acid, everything it comes in contact with would behave as a base.  The bases in Dennet’s metaphor would be art, culture, humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, religion, or any other human creation.  These fields have accepted concepts of evolution and incorporated them into their own cannon.  When an acid and a base interact a chemical reaction occurs.  A chemical reaction is a process in which one or more substances are converted into other substances, also called chemical change.  Such a change indicates that the acid is no longer the same chemical compound nor is the base.  So every time the theory of evolution interacts with another theory it is changed?  No longer the same substance?  The content of the theory of evolution is undergoing a sort of intellectual evolution?  
jrlewis's picture

More Acid-Base Chemistry

Also is an acid base reaction, the resulting conjugate acids and bases are always weaker; equilibrium favors the weak.  This is one reason why a universal acid is imaginary; it is chemically impossible for it to retain its strength over time. Dennett’s universal acid metaphor only accounts for one kind of change…that of the base, not the acid itself! 
L.Kelly-Bowditch's picture

Truth vs. truth?

In Tuesday's class, we discussed the distinctions between Truth and truth, or if they existed at all. I maintain that universal truths, whether they be "T" or "t", if they exist at all, barely matter given the different ways in which people perceive them. Historical events were brought up as an example of Truths, as an event can only happen one way. But I think that description is lacking as it ignores intentions, motivations, etc.

For example, a house fire is a house fire. Perhaps a lit cigarette started it. Assuming for a moment that there was no investigation, the resulting event is exactly the same whether it was dropped accidentally or deliberately. However, an accidental fire would result in very different emotions, reactions, etc. than arson.

I think that while that is a very simplistic example, others, such as the Holocaust (the example from class), can be looked at through a similar lens. We can determine an event happened, but can we ever actually know the Truth of it?

In looking at evolution, particularly Dennett's approach, I think it is important to remember the subjectivity involved. It's like a game of telephone, no matter how carefully you repeat what you heard, over time, things will change.

eawhite's picture

Changing Places

Skyhook and Crane examples from our Thursday small group, Vampires and Rabies – Glass Slippers and Stilettos (high-heeled shoes Prof. Grobstein), led me to think about the early days when my daughter seriously believed there were monsters in her bedroom. Because I could not convince her that they were fantasy figures from her mind, I chased them away every night and protected her by spreading potpourri in every corner of her room and just a pinch under the bed for good measure. About a year or so later she declared that I had chased them away forever. At some point we all have un-stomp-able fantasies, like her monsters, which  at a later point we recognize as  stomp-able fantasies - sometimes stomped by us and sometimes by others. If, as we discussed, the written word [and thought] can be divided into four categories: fiction, non-fiction, stomp-able fantasy and un-stomp-able fantasy and that under certain circumstances they can  and do change their value and place, why then can’t a skyhook become a crane and a crane become a skyhook?

rmehta's picture

the counterexample

I was left with this dual feeling of awe and confusion after Thursday’s class.  I am still getting used to this philosophical way of thinking, so my unease added to my confusion. My awe stemmed from being able to try and distinguish between the human power of control and that which is left to the random motion of the unknown. We discussed how in order to create a work of fiction or fantasy, we as humans need to understand what is real in relation to our own beings.  There is an element of control that is necessary in order for us to draw a line between the real and unreal.  In order for there to exist a sense of reality, there has to exist the opposite as well: a sense of fantasy. So in this sense, does belief always need a sense of disbelief in order to exist?


When we talked about the skyhook:crane analogy in class, I was contemplating the relationship between Truth:truth. Absolute truth takes a willing power of belief.  In this belief that there exists an absolute, there exists a necessity to possess a willing disbelief in our ability to alter this absolute.  Does the analogy then depend upon our willingness to disbelieve? Within this whole process of deciding what we consider to be able to cross over from simple belief to absolute Truth, we observe an aching need for an answer; it is within human nature to search for something greater, to believe that what we have found and understand to be real contains an opposite, unending counterexample.  We live in the fear of disbelief, of the unreal, of the contradiction.  In my toil to try and figure out if everything real needs an unreal counterexample to make it real, I was contemplating the brief discussion we had regarding objectivity and subjectivity.  Taking into account this necessity for the counterexample, I guess objectivity is an unachievable ideal (along with absolute Truth) that is measured simply by its level of intersubjectivity and subjective opposition. (But then again, I’m still confused.)
Tara Raju's picture

The idea that Anisha brings

The idea that Anisha brings forth about the algorithmic process preventing free will is one that does not sit well with me. If an individual knows that there is a set pattern of actions, thinking, etc then he/she has the power to change it if they choose to- its that simple. In some cases, I feel as though we are undermining the power of our free will. I think we are all familiar with the quote in which Randy Paush essentially says that the brick walls are there to see how badly we want something. The amount of free will that we put forth definitely has the possibilty of changing something that may originally be classified as unchangable. People, animals, among other factors all have the ability to change, even in a subtle or minute way, the course of something that thought of as "set".

skhemka's picture


This week's reading and discussion have put us back to the original question of our existence and it's purpose.

Quoting from Dennett while talking about intelligent design and darwin's theory he says, " So Paley was right in saying that Design was a wonderful thing to explain, but also that Design took intelligence. All he missed- and Darwin provided- was the idea that this intelligence could be broken into bits so tiny and stupid that they didn't count as intelligence at all, and then distributed through space and time in a gigantic, connected network of algorithmic process. The work must get done, but which work gets done is largely a matter of chance, since chance helps determine which problems ( and subproblems and subsubproblems) get "addressed" by the machinery."

This makes me wonder whether Dennett is building upto some big revelation where all the questions or is this way of combining evolution and intelligent design make two opposing ideas merge very neatly?

I am very confused about where this leading to. I am hoping that by the end of this week some of the issues that Dennett is addressing will clear out.I mean to what extent have we progessed in ascertaining the information of our existence. Have we  only caught on to the sub-issues and the minor frames like the crane and evolution? And is the big picture still reliant on fanstastical constructs such as Skyhook and God?

Student Blogger's picture

During Thursdays

During Thursdays discussion, what peaked my interest the most was the idea of evolution as an algorithm.  As we described in class, an algorithm is a pattered series of steps with guaranteed, repeatable results.  The process as a whole is invariant and somewhat mindless, as a fellow student described in class (I cannot remember who).  The parallel that I couldn’t quite grasp in class was how evolution and an algorithmic process were related.  In previous classes, Professor Grobsetin mentioned how evolution was non continuous and was a result of a series of random events.  If this is true, would we have to redefine the algorithm that Dennett states regulates evolution? I agree that it is a combination of algorithms that form one complex explanation of evolution.  As Darwin discovered, many of the algorithms that he observed during his research formed a relationship with one another which shaped his conclusions of natural selection and evolution.  However, these processes could be interrupted by many factors, for example by a natural disaster (the meteor that caused extinction of dinosaurs).  It is from these interruptions that evolution is observed in its truest form.  It is at these times that the algorithms are made and combined to recreate life through evolution.  


Another aspect of the algorithmic process that we discussed in class was that there is a possibility that algorithms prevent free will.  Since the process is so unyielding, there is no room for individuality and we cannot explain the variation that is seen throughout all organisms on the Earth.  

Paul Grobstein's picture

conversations in class and beyond

Interesting thursday conversation about fiction/non-fiction/fantasy/what should and should not be "stomped on" and why, for which an older paper by Kate Gould on vampires and on-line forum responses to it was one touchstone. Last night, a new addition to that forum conversation.

And a new contribution on our course home page, in response to eawhite's introductory posting, with some more thoughts about science, religion, and ... the brain (one of our topics for this coming Tuesday).

Jackie Marano's picture

My subjective story

      I have been thinking a little bit more about Dennet's crane and skyhook idea, and more on an idea that came to me in Prof. Grobstein's Thursday class: perhaps subjectivity is the crane, while objectivity is the skyhook. I believe that all humans and organisms are only capable of being subjective, though at varying degrees of sophistication. Even when we think we approach a task 'objectively' or when we say a multiple choice test is completely 'objective,' I think it is possible in every case to identify something entirely subjective that the supposed 'objectivity' is founded upon. For example, in the case of a multiple choice spelling test, we would all agree there is exists a 'right' and a 'wrong' way to spell a given word. But, what we claim to be objectively 'right' and 'wrong' spellings for the given word are actually based on the man-made notion of HOW each word should be spelled. This required a subjective decision at some point in time.

      I think that for humans and organisms, every action at every moment in time involves some degree of subjectivity: choice, judgement, or instinct, whether conscious or not. I think that this could potentially be considered a feature of accumulated design, as the genre of subjectivity that a bird might employ would differ in complexity from ours, but the two forms of subjectivity both seem to be of the same Design. I also think that, as Dennett explains, this 'crane' of subjectivity does enhance the slow-paced natural selection process because being 'subjective' requires trying something new/different at some point in time. This gives Natural Selection a chance to act! I think it could also be argued that increased subjectivity is, as Dennett suggests, a predictable product of Natural Selection. For example, if we trace the human line of evolution (yes, according to Darwin), it appears that the anatomically modern human is more subjective than its predecessors (we can speak, we have developed political, social, economical, and societal realms which allow us to exercise further subjectivity every day). This is not to say that humans are the ultimate/perfect product of evolution, but it seems reasonable to me that if you pick any organism and trace it back to its ancestors, you'd find that its capacity for 'subjectivity' would be no less than that of its predecessors. Natural selection would have favored subjectivity as a means of modifying life forms.

    As for objectivity in its purest form, I think this is unachievable by life forms on Earth. In my story here, 'objectivity' would be the sky hook that corresponds to my 'subjectivity' crane. I'm thinking I may explore this story further in my next webpaper.

Paul Grobstein's picture


That's a paper I'll look forward to. I too was struck in our thursday discussion by the objectivity/subjectivity crane/skyhook issue, particularly because I would bet that Dennett would draw parallels the other way: that objectivity is cranes and subjectivity skyooks. I hadn't thought about the crane/skyhook parallel before, but have had some thoughts on the objectivity/subjectivity matter that fit your story/might be useful in further developing it. See "The 'objectivity'/'subjectivity' spectrum: having one's cake and eating it too."
sustainablephilosopher's picture

Cultural evolution; fantastical realities

I was reading about the history of Earth day at and found an interesting quote: "That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself." This seemed to relate directly to what we have been talking about with biological evolution, applied to a human event.

I was thinking about the comparisons between human cultural evolution and biological evolution. I wondered whether, in contrast to biological evolution, which under our current Darwinian narrative has no goal/ is essentially random, cultural evolution is fundamentally different because as active shapers/ participants in our cultural narratives and direction, we can intentionally choose to have things follow a certain path/ lead to an ultimate goal. If we give culture an overarching goal/ teleology, how does this change its evolutionary nature? Also, it seems that cultural evolution exponentially tends toward greater complexity and intelligence, evidenced by the massive technological leaps over the past two centuries. It has been said that more happened in the 20th century than in the previous 19 combined. Such massive changes in such a short time contrasts with biological evolution, which is much harder for individual organisms to be able to notice in a given lifetime. When we talked about evidence of human evolution a few weeks ago, I don't know why no one mentioned the internet - in my mind, this is the greatest evolutionary mechanism we have yet evolved by far. Talk about information as a mechanism of evolutionary change - what greater medium exists for the exchange of information?

I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey after Thursday's discussion, on Prof. G's strong recommendation. I found an interesting review by Robert Ebert from 1998 in which he said that "2001 pointed the way beyond narrative." What might it mean for a human cultural creation to be non-narrative? Also, I realized the term science fiction is interesting - is science fiction more real/ realistic/ plausible than plain old fiction? It as a genre seems to blur the traditional science/ literature divide, if only if name.

On Thursday, we talked a lot about the difference between fantasy and reality. I was wondering whether fantasy is really distinct from reality, or whether we live out fantasies on a daily basis. For instance, don't people write fiction in their head all day - what else is the inner monologue, that constantly running voice inside you head? To me, perhaps the most interesting topic that arose during our conversation was the idea that, going along with Dennett's metaphor, Truth, Reality, and Objectivity are 'skyhooks' (transcendent ideas/ supernatural creations); that our wish to achieve those ideals is the crane. As Prof. Grobstein noted, we created libraries full of books and knowledge; they did not drop down out of the sky.  From this, I came away with the idea that we shouldn't seek factual objectivity because it is an ideal that we created; but we should, however, seek to be as intellectually honest and make as broad of summaries of observations as possible for us as humans (which may mean admitting that nothing we conceive of could ever be True in the universal sense, only accurate or inaccurate in a given frame of reference at a certain time in a certain place).
amirbey's picture


I have been a little bit confused this week with the reading since there were a lot of words that I did not really understand. However, during Thursday’s lecture, we gave the definitions of some key words that Daniel C. Dennett uses quite a lot in his book, which helped me understand his ideas a lot better.  I was glad to learn about skyhooks and cranes.  As I have understood, cranes are used in this book as the image of something that has a strong base, and skyhooks, on the contrary, come from nowhere, without anything to be based on.  But my favorite metaphor that Dennett employs is of the library of Babel and the one of Mendel.  Indeed, the library of Babel is a library that possesses every possible book, and therefore, in this same idea, the library of Mendel contains all of the possible genetic combinations.  The library of Babel might be more related to religion since in the book of Genesis, the tower of Babel was a gigantesque tower in which people lived in a unity, but God decided to spread these populations apart, and so there were different cultures and languages around the world.  This library of Babel might be a skyhook since it seems to be invented and the story doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.  The library of Mendel on the other side could be considered as a crane, because it is based on facts, observations and calculations to have all of the possible combinations for genes.

mcurrie's picture


I feel like this whole week I have just been confused. When we talked about Truth vs. truth and about fantasy vs. reality.  With truth I thought that there are not truth only inconsistent ideas or maybe it's just that there are no facts.   I guess its just hearing that you can't rely on one idea because there could be a better one out there. And maybe that is our goal in life, to just understand what is around us and live.  I know we have been saying that life is randomly made and is not being lead to some ultimate perfection but what about making your own goal in life. For some it is just to be noticed or be remembered forever through history, for others maybe just having a family and being happy.  For myself I haven't figured out my ulitmate goal in life, right now it's just to get through college and live my life, instead of being scared of death.  I guess truths are not facts but they are some statement or words that mean something to someone or a way to keep moving forward to explore. For fantasy vs. reality I'll just keep pondering the differences and try to figure out how you can tell the difference or even if there is one.  Well I actually know there is a difference but maybe a very small one.  Fiction I think falls in between fantasy and reality.  See with some fantasy books authors base characters on people who lived or societies that made mistakes as warnings to us all to be careful with what we pursue or create.  I mean I like to believe in mythological creatures but maybe not Harry Potter.  I just can't see how people obsess over magic and wands and nonexistent characters when there are other "real" things to obsess about. For me it's the mountains at home in Colorado. I miss them and love how you walk up a mountain and hear the sounds of nature around you.  I guess believing in fantasy is okay as long as it doesn't take over your life, which is about where I fell out of the discussion on Thursday.  I hope we can explore this topic more so that I can put a stop to my confusion.

Paul Grobstein's picture

cranes and skyhooks

Interesting question came up in discussion today. Is a construction crane (left below) a good example of Dennett's "crane"? Or is a construction crane actually a skyhook (right below)?

crane skyhook
Image by Hilary McGowan Image by Kate Gould
epeck01's picture

Since my smaller group

Since my smaller group discussion did not really focus on the skyhooks vs. cranes idea, I never thought that the two could be alike or even possibly the same.  However, the more I think about it, the more I see that a "skyhook" could just be a crane in disguise.  We simply cannot see the other parts of the crane.  The skyhook/crane symbolism is probably meant to show us that there is no G-d or higher power since everything can be explained, however the more I read this book, the more I question my own beliefs in a lack of G-d.  If a skyhook doesn't actually exist, and is simply a crane that we will never, or do not yet understand, why can't a G-d-like figure be the ultimate crane of misunderstanding?  I was speaking with some friends over the weekend about how incredible evolution has been and how it is impossible to even imagine what the next steps could be.  In this case, why is it academically and intelectually aceptable to not believe in g-d, but believe in unimaginable bounds to evolution, while a belief in a G-d is so frowned upon in academic circles, and in the novel we're reading?