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Dennett and Linear Evolution

LS2's picture

In his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Daniel Dennett describes to his readers how the implications of the story of evolution are far wider-reaching than the biological parameters initially proposed by Charles Darwin. He writes that such a story, in which the possibility of any intentional beginning or over determined end of development is erased, acts like a “universal acid…it eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionalized world-view, with most of the old land-markers still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways”(63).  In the face of a story that threatens such a sweeping overhaul, Dennett argues that in order to maintain these semblances of recognizability, we must depend upon “cranes” of material, earthly knowledge, and do away with stories that begin or end with “skyhooks” anchored in other, unknowable worlds(73).

However, history demonstrates that “skyhooks” have often charaded as “cranes,” and that foundationalist stories have frequently leaned upon material aspects of the mundane so as to garner authority and jurisdiction on the order of the world. As Dennett acknowledges, Darwin’s story of evolution “has been misappropriated to lend scientific respectability to appalling political and social doctrines”(17). Yet, this acknowledgement fails to address the manner in which such “social doctrines,” such as the virulent trope of linear evolution within early anthropology, have not only exploited a misguided and misrepresented incarnate of Darwin’s suggested narrative, but have done so through expressly physical and elemental aspects of the world. Furthermore, Dennett optimistically implies that though these exploitative gestures have occurred, through the dissolution of narratives that either begin or end in “skyhooks,” we may reverse the damage done to both Darwin’s tale and to our understanding of the world around us.

This optimism is, on the one hand, tremendously important in reconciling the expansive ramifications of Darwin’s story with our desire to both retain and evolve (so to speak) our knowledge of the world. On the other hand however, the notion that through careful re-examination of mundane and material realities we may somehow mitigate the manner in which Darwin’s theory has been detrimentally misused is a conviction that itself disregards tangible examples of these exploitations’ refusal to budge. We need only turn to natural history museums, long considered repositories of objective truth, and themselves a direct outgrowth of a discourse that depended on the “crane” of anthropological authority to promote a “skyhook” of human hierarchy, linear evolution, to know that some mistreatments of Darwin’s theories are both fundamentally material and apparently, stubbornly immutable.

To illustrate the recalcitrance of evolutionary tropes that misguidedly expropriate Darwin’s theory in the service of teleologies of human hierarchy, we may turn to cultural theorist Mieke Bal’s essay entitled “Telling, Showing, Showing Off”.  Using a semiotic framework, Bal here provides her readers with a kind of alternative walking tour of the American Museum of Natural History in order to decode and denaturalize the ostensibly objective Truth presented in the museum. Bal demonstrates that the lay-out of the natural history museum is one in which a visitor moves from flora and fauna, to representations of non-western peoples, and eventually culminates in artifacts from the Greco-Roman era. As such, she argues that the narrative of what the museum deems “Man’s Rise to Civilization” not only reflects the racist, and ideologically informed notion of a linear evolution of man, but through its preservation in the present, also reproduces and maintains these ideals. Moreover, both historically and currently relied(ies) upon mundane evidence—the artifacts, traditions, and geographical locations of people—in order to construct an ostensible “crane” about human evolution.

Of The Natural History Museum, Bal writes that “any museum of this size and ambition is today saddled with a double status; it is necessarily also a museum of the museum, a preserve not for endangered species but for an endangered self, a ‘metamuseum’: the museal preservation of a project ruthlessly dated and belonging to an age long gone whose ideological goals have been subjected to extensive critique”(560).  Is it the fact of this stubborn self-preservation, and the maintenance of the museum’s status as a repository of objective truth in popular imagination, that debunks Dennett’s proposal that when we look carefully and critically at the world around us, we may reconstruct Darwin’s theory of evolution, and repeal the degradation it has experienced in the past.  The legacy of theories such as linear evolution remains with us today, despite the abolition of many “skyhooks” about racial hierarchies and a progression from savagery to civilization.

The story of evolution is a narrative about our past. Like museums, it attempts to coherently reconstruct what came before us, and to cohesively account for where we are today. However, as Darwin’s account tells us, our past was turbulent, and the plot twists were arbitrary. That being said, the knowledge we have today cannot smooth over these changes, nor even entirely ameliorate what we now feel were “mistakes” or errors in judgment. Dennett believes that through meticulous measurements of the material we may disarm and discredit the mistakes of the past. What he fails to realize however, is that those mistakes too depended on the material, that they remain with us even today, and that though we may not be able to change history, we are able to evolve beyond the past.

Works Cited:
-Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Simon and Schuster: New York 1995

-Bal, Mieke. “Telling, Showing, Showing Off.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 18, No. 3 Spring 1992


Paul Grobstein's picture

Dennett: misplaced optimism?

Point well taken, and very much worth making.  Skyhooks do indeed frequently masquerade as cranes.  So appealing to the "facts of the matter" isn't going to get us away from repeating errors of the past.  Got another idea about how to do that?