Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Daniel Dennett and Intellectual Flexibility

jhercher's picture

ames Hercher

Evolution in Lit

Web Paper #2



Intellectual Flexibility Inspired by Daniel Dennett





            Daniel Dennett spends some time discussing how people categorize things in their minds.  It is important that Dennett begins his piece with this, before he actually gets heavily involved in a discussion of evolution and the application of natural selection.  It is revealing of how human beings are predisposed to finding patterns in the worlds, and grouping disparate things into groups.  The problem though, is that this can lead to some misleading prejudices that limit thought and creativity.  The main thing Dennett has in mind is the way people, especially in Darwin’s time, were obsessed with dividing and subdividing the different sects of animals into species and family and phyla.  Advancements in taxonomy and knowledge of the structure and function of animals led to staggering breakthroughs, and made it possible for Darwin to compile the data and evidence he needed to develop his dangerous idea, but only because he had a mind that was flexible enough to see beyond the boundaries that hemmed in the perspective of other scientists.  The issue at hand, in my mind, is one of intellectual flexibility.  The concept of species that was established, with each different animal distinguished by their essential traits, meant people saw species as being rigidly immutable.  Darwin’s genius was to see through this false perspective, and realize that species were far from timeless and unchanging, but rather in a constant state of transformation and in dialogue with a host of other species. 

            The metaphor Dennett uses to rationalize this idea is that of literary genres.  I’m really intrigued by this analogy, since I view genres in a very evolutionary way.  People tend to view genres in much the same way that Barnes and Nobles views genres: in other words, in strictly segmented departments.  This is helpful if you’re setting up a bookstore or organizing a library using the Dewey decimal system, but it’s a counterproductive way to conceptualize how genre and literature evolve.  By segregating all the different genres, fiction, history, biography, nonfiction, classics, science fiction, children’s stories and so on, people fail to grasp how intimately literature is in dialogue across the whole genre spectrum.  When Brave New World made the long walk to the classics section, did it stop being a science fiction book?  The answer, of course, is no.  But by providing these rigid structures, people do not appreciate how literature is an adaptive, malleable force.  Genres are the genes of literature.  They constantly mix, change, emerge and reemerge.  Genres, like genes, are in a constant dialogue with their environment (which, in the case of genre, is whatever society the text was written in) and all previous works.  The authors who write literature are exposed to all other works.  People who write science fiction don’t read only science fiction, and the same goes for every other genre.  You’re likely to find Alice in Wonderland in the children’s section, but it is probably more closely related to a book from the mathematics section or work from experimental German writers than whatever book is standing next to it.  We establish rigid boundaries in our minds, which we believe help us to organize our thoughts, but which really blind us to what should be self-evident truths.  It was the genius of people like Darwin or Mendel (or Dennett, I guess) to see beyond that. 

            In evolutionary studies as well, the same issues emerges.  It is simple for people to sum up all of evolution in a phrase like “kill or be killed” or “Survival of the fittest” since both of those do a fairly adequate job encapsulating natural selection’s fundamental tenet.  But there a great many people who are turned away from evolution because they are repulsed by that single phrase, responding by saying it’s a “heartless” idea that fails to encompass things like love or compassion.  What those people have done is take an idea as expansive as an ocean, oceans of oceans even, and force it to fit inside a teacup.  Of course it doesn’t fit.  Dennett, I think, in much of his book, is more concerned with the elasticity of people’s minds.  I felt all along that he would make claims that he might not even think were entirely true.  But what he was really doing, in my mind at least, was pointing towards where people had walled off ideas in their minds just to show them that there was something beyond that wall.  People’s minds are not elastic enough to conceptualize ideas and theories that fail to be easily summarized, which is why ideas like evolution or relativity went so long undiscovered.  And what’s more, I feel like people’s minds, like mud, will harden if they are not constantly changed and enlivened.  That’s why it’s so crucial to discuss topics like this, which are, to be fair, almost impossible to discuss.  They are difficult for people to conceptualize or verbalize their feelings about. But it’s important to keep in mind that whether we acknowledge it or not, a whole host of things, from genes to genres, will be evolving in beautiful ways without our even knowing it, so we should strive to achieve a perspective flexible enough to appreciate that.