Story of Evolution/Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College
24 February, 2004

Dennett's Ideas (Dangerous and Otherwise) About Evolution and Life:


Paul's Admiration / Suspicion We Can Do Better Than This

Text: Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea


Wonderfully UsefulIffyA Problem
universal acid

greedy vs proper reductionism

cranes vs skyhooks

nice tries

emergent meaning/intentionality

cultural transmission

"selfish" genes

selfish memes


forced moves

libraries, search landscape (akin to niches)

genes and memes and selection and NOTHING else?

no personal agency? no free will?

no space beyond the "libraries"?

Daniel Dennett's Brain:

(and sometimes out of control)
Committed to Rigor in ThoughtSome Times Too Much So?
(and hence oddly timid?)
"To put it bluntly but fairly, anyone who today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution is simply ignorant, excusably ignorant in a world where three out of four people have learned to read and write" (p 46) "It makes sense to err on the side of greedy reductionism, to try for the simple model before wallowing around in complexities" (p 396) "If a ... brain were truly capable of non-algorithmic activity, and if we have such brains, and if our brains are themselves the products of an algorithmic process ... an algorithmic process (natural selection in its various levels and incarnations) creates a non-algorithmic subprocess of subroutine, turning the whole process (evolution up to and including ... brains) into a non-algorithmic process after all. This would be a cascade of cranes creating, eventually, a real skyhook! ... The position is, I guess, possible, but ... (p 448)
The Problem: "In the beginning was the Word ..." ("logos" -> intent, reason, cause)

  • Possibility that it is not so, that intent/reason were not present at the beginning, leading to ...

  • "fears that the wrong answer [to whether evolution is the explanation] would have intolerable moral [and other] implications [no comfort/goodness/personal responsibility]" (Dennett, p 20], ie that things important to us would prove to be shams/illusions

  • Dennett's solution ...

    Selfish genes, selfish genes, exploration within a fixed landscape/library, emergent meaning/intentionality/morality within that constraint

    "Darwin has shown us how, in fact, EVERYTHING is just such a product [of mindless purposeless forces] ... Darwin offers us [a convincing explanation of how God is distributed in the whole of nature]: it is in the distribution of Design through out nature, creating, in the Tree of Life, an utterly unique and irreplaceable creation ... that wonderful wedding of chance and necessity ... [that] just happened to happen, in the fulness of time ... it did make the ivy twine and the sky so blue, so perhaps the song I love tells a truth after all ... it is surely a being that is greater than anything any of us will ever conceive of in detail worthy of its detail ... I can stand in affirmation of its significance." (p 520)

    Paul's Brain: Admiration and awe is all very fine, but I want to be an agent, to MATTER, not only to be shaped by but to shape. So ...

    • If evolution is genuine, the story DOESN'T end (Dennett notwithstanding)
    • And needn't, if one looks a little more closely at the brain than Dennett does ...
    • There IS more there than genes and memes, certainly more cranes and perhaps even a skyhook created by cranes ...
    Some more steps?:

    were not present at the beginning
    do not exist in some parallel "other world"
    do not disappear as illusions.

    They are instead themselves outcomes of an evolutionary process and,
    once having come into being,
    they in turn become causal influences in that process.

    From the Active Inanimate To Models to Stories to Agency (and Back Again)

    Some Details

    From the active inanimate to model builders ...
    adaptive, sophisticated, creative entities lacking "consciousness", "intentionality", internal sense of "meaning", internal sense of "self/other", internal sense of "time" ... things acting in ways that cause story-tellers to infer the existence of properties that don't in fact come into existence until story-tellers had evolved and created them

    From the model builders to the story tellers ...
    accelerating the process of exploration, without and with language ... recognizing models, using the models themselves to bring about new things ... what more do the WORDS mean? what more do we think we can do? and if we can, how?

    • the bipartite brain as a product and an accelerator of evolution

    • "thinking" without language (creating with pictures, movements, etc; for "with" see below)

      By Roger N. Shepherd, from The Minds Eye: Finding Truth in Illusion

      From Almost Real

    • "morality" without/with language


    • "personal responsibility" without/with language


    • story telling without/with "time"

    • language/language-based culture as an accelerator of the accelerator

      Words can bring into potential existence things that had not previously existed (and themselves have causal efficacy, reproduce, etc = "memes")

      • "Time" - the idea of time as a location makes potentially possible time travel
      • "Altruism" - as a distinctive characteristic different from simply mutual interdependence/cooperation make potentially possible behaviors which are not for certain in one's own self-interest and don't fit existing models/stories
        • "I am, and I can think, therefore I can change who I am"
        • An example?
      • "Story" - as something more than model-building and narrative makes possible "platonism", "great chain of being", "creationism", "evolution" and ... changes both in "self" and in "culture"?
      • Brings into existence not only time, altruism, etc but also "self"?

      A BIG crane, maybe even a skyhook, created by the cranes?:

      "I am, and I can think, therefore I can change who I am" and the libraries, search landscapes as well?

    Evolution ...

    • The active inanimate ... trying out new things (combinations of stuff), seeing whether they last
    • Model builders ... trying out new things (inanimate and animate, combinations of both), seeing whether they last
    • Story tellers ... trying out new things (inanimate, animate, and story, combinations of all), seeing whether they last, knowing one is doing it?
    • Language based story tellers ... trying out new things (inanimate, animate, story, language based stories, combinations of all), seeing whether they last, knowing one is doing it

    To be continued ...

    Continuing (notes added after class)

    Key points are adding to Dennett importance of randomness in context of bipartite brain .... Assertion that with this addition one gets not only awesome reality but personal agency

    Core issue: is the search space actually being reshaped by human action?

    Earlier issue, is it being reshaped by model-builders? Yes, in sense of new niches being created, but no in sense that all one has is particular organizations of matter and those in principle all imaginable in advance (the library) ... in this case, randomness gets one to new places but arguably all in same ("God's eye view") in advance imaginable search space.

    With bipartite brain, what can be created is not previously imaginable (hence no "God's eye view) possibilities, some at least of which can in fact be implemented ... this in turn changes the search space in various ways, including at least potentially quite fundamental ones, ones not characterizable in terms of assemblies of matter?

    If so, the cranes have in fact yielded a skyhook ... a potential ability to reshape by previous intent ...

    Toughest problems

    • Indeterminacy matters, but not currently establishable ... bipartite brain case distinct from other cases where indeterminacy relevant?
    • If one includes "states" of brain (organization of matter) in "search space" does it expand so as to make trouble for the argument?


    March 3

    The new thing brought into being is "story" ("The Word", plan, conscious intent), a thing which, while it must always be embodied in SOME form of organized matter, is in fact, semi-independent of organized matter in that it can exist as a discrete thing in a (infinite?) number of different, unotherwise unrelated forms of organized matter. That DOES constitute a new, causally significant, "niche space" (see papers by Rich and Willis). And, arguably, is NOT encapsulated in previously existing search space defined by all possible organizations of forms of matter. One needs an observer to know which sets of these constitute particular "words", "stories". So "meaning" exists, is causally significant, but did not exist, will not in future exist, without conscious observers (the tree in forest routine again).

    March 4

    Yes, "story" can, I think, in principle be causally effective at all previous levels, all the way back to and including the "first algorithm". Perhaps an encouraging thought (repair concerns associated with first/second law of thermodynamics?), perhaps a frightening one (destruction of rain forest). To be continued ...