Story of Evolution/Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College
27 February, 2005

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 (a particular kind of) Rigor in ThoughtSome Times Too Much So? (and hence oddly timid? as well as destructive?)
"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)

"Dr. Mayr, a strong believer in the Hegelian dialectic as a way of advancing understanding, was known for his definitive proclamations, which often inspired as many heated rebuttals as nods of vigorous agreement"

Lawrence H. Summers - "I think I do have a tendency to challenging dialogue in the way of a graduate seminar. Its probably both a strength and a weakness ..." NY Times, 26 Feb 2005

"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 (revisited):

Dennett's solution ...

Selfish genes, selfish memes, 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's Solution ...

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 ...

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