Archive of Weeks 5-7 Forum: Darwin's Dangerous Idea

Current Forum and Forum Archives for "The Story of Evolution/The Evolution of Stories" (Spring 2005)

from Mayr to Dennett ...
Name: Paul Grobstein (
Date: 02/11/2005 17:15
Link to this Comment: 12800

A fresh start? Actually its all archived, and one really can't ever quite go home again but ... a new book to read and some new space to explore, evolve into?

So, last thoughts on Mayr or first ones on Dennett or ... a mix of the two? Here's a bridge topic to think about if you need something:

If there is no "purpose" in evolution, how come both Mayr and Dennett seem so pushy, ie purpose-full? Aren't Mayr and Dennett both products of evolution? And, if so, how can they have purpose if the process doesn't?

See you all on Monday, to talk about the first chapters of Dennett.

another way in...
Name: Anne Dalke (
Date: 02/12/2005 10:16
Link to this Comment: 12811

The New York Times Book Review is featuring Alan Lightman's new collection of essays, A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit, this weekend (2/13/05). The reviewer observes,

Science happens to be excellent training for literature; it calls for both narrative ability and a grasp of style, and it sometimes seems as though the "arts-science divide" simply reflects the humanities' refusal to believe that anything that originates in a lab could possibly be attractive.

Not a bad way (by my lights, though I expect Paul may tell the story somewhat differently!) to describe the arc of this course, which begins with biology as the ground from which culture arises, and out of which it is (purposively?) made; that is, it uses "science as excellent training for literature...."

the god gene
Name: Britt Fremstad (
Date: 02/12/2005 19:31
Link to this Comment: 12821

Many of you have probably heard about the new book out which claims that humans have a predisposition (via evolution) to believe in a god. An editorial in the nytimes talks more about this:

If you don't feel like reading the whole article (not that it's long), I think you'd still find humor in the first paragraph:

***An "analysis" of Democrats and Republicans from the Ladies' Home Journal in 1962 concluded: "Republicans sleep in twin beds - some even in separate rooms. That is why there are more Democrats." That biological analysis turns out - surprise! - to have been superficial.*****

Name: Liz Paterek (
Date: 02/13/2005 09:31
Link to this Comment: 12824

I can't get out of my head what we talked about last class. We talked about all the things that evolution can create. I was thinking about whether or not morality is an evolved trait. Morality varies from culture to culture, however, almost any culture has the idea that "good" (I mean this based on some created standard by the society), productive, non-threatening members of society should not be harmed. That seems to hold true in most animal societies too. Most animals, especially those with larger brains seem to have a set of ingrained rules that apply to society, most likely some sort of instinct. Perhaps I am applying human ideas to the animal world, but there does seem to be some ingrained set. Therefore perhaps humans are more instinctual than we really think. Perhaps we rely more on some inborn sense of morality. If so does that in some way take away our sense of purpose? I mean if we are just following what evolution created perhaps there is no purpose at all but we feel the need to create one. Perhaps Mayr is afraid that there is no real purpose and that his the reason for his being so pushy. I wonder why is the sense of purpose so important and why is creating purpose so important. Would it remove our ability to live more happily if we were to feel that purpose was a human construct? It would seem to me that from how purposeful that Mayr is, he would say yes or perhaps shirk the question all together.

Moral sense test
Name: Rebekah (
Date: 02/13/2005 10:22
Link to this Comment: 12826

Given the recent fascinating discussions of human morality in our classes, some of you may be interested in reading about(and maybe contributing to) this research project being conducted at Harvard on the notion of a universal moral faculty. There's annoyingly little on the details/history of the project and their hypotheses on the website, but I guess this is because they're still collecting data through the test and don't want to risk skewing the results in any way. Worth checking out anyway:

Name: Becky Hahn (
Date: 02/13/2005 12:48
Link to this Comment: 12828

In response to Professor Grobstein's question about purpose:
I think that it is very hard to write about anything without having a distinct purpose. It does seem paradoxical to write about evolution, a process lacking in purpose, in a narrative that has one, but I think that it's unavoidable to do so. If one tries to write without a purpose, it is very difficult to be coherent and organized. The result will likely seem like it's about nothing, and no one will want to read it.
This ties in to the idea of truth. Many people accept in a philosophical sense that absolute truth does not exist, but it is hard to avoid the concept of truth for practical purposes. Dennett writes on p. 22 that "one of the things we deem precious is the truth." It is hard to think about the world without thinking about truth. Later on, Dennett writes that "I love the world so much that I am sure that I want to know the truth about it" (p. 82, note 10). When studying the world around us, it can feel very unsatisfying to only accumulate observations. There seems to be a tendancy to seek "truth" whether or not one really believes that it exists.

Name: Ariel Singer (
Date: 02/13/2005 14:29
Link to this Comment: 12830

I love the the op-ed article that Britt posted a link for. The general the idea is a fascinating one: we all have the gene VMAT 2, but depending on which variant you have, you are either more or less likely to believe in a god. I think that this article touches upon another point though, and one that we have not discussed, humor in science. Now that I think back on Mayr's book I realize that part of the reason it reminded me so much of a textbook was the lack of humor. One can write as many dry facts on a page as one wants, one can even link them together and report the correlation's, but that does not make it good, or approachable writing.

On a entirely different topic, I found it interesting that the controversy about Intelligent Design being taught in Dover PA has now reached international news. Here is the link to an article about it on BBC:

At the bottom of the BBC article is a bit about a new museum slated to open in Kentucky that will take viewers "on a journey 6,000 years back in time, to the Garden of Eden, to a time when the creators believe dinosaurs and man roamed the earth side-by-side."

Also of note is that Ian Wilmut, the man who ran the Dolly cloning project, has been given permission in the UK to clone human embryos so that he can study a motor neuron disease called MND. Here is the link in BBC: Also for comparisons sake, here is the link to an article on the same topic from Aljazeera's english website:

Name: Kelsey Smith (
Date: 02/13/2005 15:10
Link to this Comment: 12832

Belief in God is an iteresting concept. It seems incredible that it could be genetically related. Instead, it seems more probable that it is related to knowledge. Meaning, the more education you have, the less likely you are to be religious. In the honors English and philosophy block class that I took senior year of high school, I had 54 classmates. At the end of the year, 48 of them had no problem saying that they were athiests.

Universal Acid and Dennett
Name: Nada Ali (
Date: 02/13/2005 15:18
Link to this Comment: 12833

As I read the readings for this week, I couldnt help but feel like they were a breath of fresh air as quoted on the back on the book. I was fascinated by pretty much most of what Ive read and feel obligated to comment on how well this man writes. I followed, I understood, I enjoyed and most of all it all made sense to me. Notions of universal acid and darwin's natural selection permeating throughout the disciplines and ages is simply unbelievable. Dennett not only plays with this idea throughout the readings but chronologically takes us through a journey of how this universal acid has such far reaching consequences for other fields. Darwin is not only important for Biology but is essential for our understanding of so many things. Dennett comment regarding universal acid describing it as something that it "eats through almost every traditional concept and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world view, with most of the OLD LANDMARKS STILL RECOGNIZEABLE, but transformed in fundamental ways" (Dennett. Pg. 63) is simply mesmerizing and incredibly astute. His insight into how Darwin's ideas may have permeated into other disciplines and ideas but have also maintained and kept the original idea alive is very intuitive in my opinion.

The idea of algorithms was also very interesting. To view evolution as a algorithm (prior to the reading that word would mean nothing to me) helped understand evolution through a different tool and medium. That to me was simplistic yet so very new. Its almost like he thinks for you in this book and provokes further deeper thought. Where one would have stopped ordinarily is simply presented as the starting point in this book and I like that idea.

On Dennet
Name: Arshiya Urveeja Bose (
Date: 02/13/2005 15:18
Link to this Comment: 12834

Wow ! Many things to think about. Lots of confusion to work through.
To be honest, I didn't really understand Dennet. The book was exhausting and I found it difficult to sieve out relevant things from what seemed superfluous and wordy sentences. But here is something...

So Darwin's dangerous idea (I am guessing) is that design and order can emerge from algorithmic processes that come out of no pre-existing Intelligence or Force. I felt that this book, more than Mayr, seemed to very forcefully jeopardize belief in God and assume that the two, belief in God and belief in Evolution cannot coexist.

I was particularly amused by Dennet's allusion to Schrödinger and was thinking about how to connect his cat to Design and Order. Actually, I just read a little about his book What is Life?, and he seems to propose that life and organization is maintained by extracting 'order' from the environment. He coined the phrase - 'Negative Entropy' to describe this. It would be interesting to explore the meaning negative entropy more.

Unlike some other evolutionary biologists / philosophers, Dennet seems to believe that life is "complex" or "designed" or "ordered". This is in complete contrast with someone like Richard Dawkins (zoologist: Selfish Gene, Extended Phenotype, Blind Watchmaker) who claims that life and organisms are NOT complex. Complexity is only a human perception of design and order. And organisms are just what they are. I was interested by these different schools of thinking.

Darwin's Purpose
Name: L.T.(lt)
Date: 02/13/2005 16:01
Link to this Comment: 12835

My thoughts on purpose rather build on what Becky said about purpose - that it's necessary to have purpose in order to write well. Purpose may be necessary, but does it have to be achieved? One of Dennett's points is that Darwin doesn't discuss the topic that his writing is named for, The Origin of the Species. From what I understand, Dennett thinks that Darwin's purpose in writing was actually to describe and defend the mechanism of natural selection. However, Darwin may have intended to discuss the first origins of species and failed, but through his failure created the theory of natural selection. Would this make the purpose of his work to describe the origin of the species, or to defend natural selection? Can a work of literature have a purpose beyond what the writer intended? Or maybe the writer's purpose is something that even the writer can't fully understand until the work has been written.

Name: Lauren Z (
Date: 02/13/2005 16:01
Link to this Comment: 12836

First of all, I want to say that so far I am really enjoying Dennett's book. His writing style is very clear, and the issues with which he deals are fascinating. I had conisidered the cultural dangers of Darwin's theory in that it contradicts the Creation myth told in the Scriptures, and in doing so destroys man's elite status as a unique creation of his God. What I had not conisidered prior to reading Dennett is the idea that natural selection is an algorithmic process, mindless and mechanical. Obviously, these ideas are related, but I had never connected them in this way. I will, at least for now, continue to suggest what I did in my paper: that perhaps the evolutionary process in itself, however mindless or mechanical, could have intelligence behind it. I was happy to see that this was brought up by Dennett. At any rate, I'm am looking forward to this week's discussions.

Name: Iva Yonova (
Date: 02/13/2005 16:36
Link to this Comment: 12839

I am really amazed that most of the people in the forum seem to like Dennett... Although I agree that his writing is much easier to read he is maybe twise as arogant and imposing his opinion that creationism is absolutely fake while evolution is "THE TRUTH". Not that I don't agree with him... I'm absolutely on his side but after the criticism Mayr took in our discussions I felt that Dennett's not going to be apreciated...

Nevertheless, I find Dennett wonderful to read: easy flowing and logically structured... and I like his perspective very much on top of that:)

In my paper I was discussiong the clash between evolution and creationism and now that I'm reading Dennett I feel really bad because I was thinking along what he is talking about but I definately could not explain my point as clearly... and was probably uncomfortable taking such a strong opposition to creationism... anyway I love Dennet so far...

And finally a reference to prof Grobstein's question: we discussed in class the second law of thermodinamics and how everything strives toward disorder... isn't that the purpose of evolution... I mean, a cingle type of organism is much more order-like than 100 000 different types of organisms...

PS a very cool postings site about creationism vs evolution: ...and you can check out the it's really interesting...

PSS im sorry for the extreemly disorganized posting but i had quite a few different things to say:)

co-existence and purpose pushovers
Name: Tonda Shimbo (
Date: 02/13/2005 16:42
Link to this Comment: 12840

I like Dennett's book a lot - though a little dry at times, I enjoy all the thought that he's put into it and the many theories that he comes up with. Though I'll agree with Kelsey's idea that it seems as if there is an inverse relationship between education and 'religion' (if one can even define that), I personally find that idea very troubling. I go to church every Sunday, and though I would not dare to claim any good deal of intelligence (there is much too much that I don't know), I do go to Bryn Mawr, so I suppose I'm not completely daft - and I feel that faith in any form is an important part of remaining human, sane, and happy. I don't want to convert anyone by any means, but I do want to pose the idea that the two ideas - evolution and religion (intelligence and faith) - can co-exist. And I find it somewhat comforting that someone else has put so much effort into it, and so much more time into thinking about this idea than I have. I'll agree that both Mayr and Dennett are pushing their ideas as "truth" - or in the least a solid basis for thought and theory, but I think that our purpose in reading them is to decide for ourselves what we want to think, and to know more of the theories out there so as not to remain in the dark.

Dennett and Evolution as an Algorithm
Name: Austin (
Date: 02/13/2005 16:44
Link to this Comment: 12841

So far, I am really enjoying Dennett's book. His writing style is clear and there are flashes of fun in it that make the book an interesting and informative read. I can't wait to see what else he has to say and the discussions that are invoked by his thoughts.

The idea of evolution as an algorithm was extremely interesting to me. I am a firm believer of evolution already, but putting it into these terms was a great new way to think about this theory. I had certainly never thought of it in these exact terms previously (although I may have had thoughts similar to this idea, but definitely not defined as algorithm). But calling it an algorithm brought great clarity to the evolution. To me, it just makes sense. Evolution is a mathematical process that tries different answers until the correct one is found. I love it! This is definitely an idea I would love to discuss further inside as well as outside of class with friends.

On a related note: When I first started thinking about evolution as an algorithm, I was worried that the explanation for this would lead to a creator. I do not and never have believed in God, and plan on keeping it that way. But as soon as I asked myself this question: Does evolution as an algorithm mean God exists?, Dennett answered for me. He said no it didn't necessarily mean that because there is randomness (ahh the word returns!)involved. So the algorithm can include some trial and error. I was thrilled. Dennett seems to have some great thoughts and some great ways of explaining them. I love the idea of the algorithm and can't wait to see what other ideas Dennett has.

Name: Eleanor (
Date: 02/13/2005 16:54
Link to this Comment: 12842

Dennett does appear somewhat arrogant in his descriptions of creationism and of evolution as absolute truth, but I can as always forgive it because it is his book and I feel I can do what I want with it. I suppose I am similar to Tonda in that religion is an important part of my life, and I believe that evolution and faith can co-exist. In this way, Dennett's book addresses issues that I had tried to put from my mind while reading Mayr's, and so far I am fascinated and fairly satisfied with what he has done. I look forward to reading more.

there is no separation of the subject from the mind that perceives it (or so i've read)
Name: Eileen Talone (
Date: 02/13/2005 16:56
Link to this Comment: 12843

from the start, Dennett writes not in the vernacular but at least in non-specialized language, as well as addressing the discomfort that Darwin's "uncovering" of processes has created. while Mayr only gets metaphysical with us as an afterthought, or as the cap to a very grounded book, Dennett is already there, getting down from the start. admittedly they are dif. books with dif titles, authors and purposes, but still I feel more sure of myself in this book, even if the topics take time to steep more than Mayr's did.
what I liked a lot was his identification of what we leave unanswered, what we answer with more creations and suppositions- "since we can never know why, we must comfort ourselves in 'how'." - toni morrison. if Mayr got us there and reacquainted us with the facts of evolution- "DNA based reproduction and evolution", though the gene theory and idea of the gene as the instrument of heredity was not Darwin's- Dennett is the narration of evolution's social and intellectual history, of its evolution of accpetance and understanding in the world view, as much as we can have a cohesive world view. I will probably post later, as I am still taken with specific aspects of the reading and not addressing others.

Name: Haley Bruggemann (
Date: 02/13/2005 16:58
Link to this Comment: 12844

I found the first part of Dennet's book pretty amazing. True, sometimes the examples get a bit redundant, but for the most part, his writing is clear and straightforward. He never seems to leave room for any misinterpretation of his ideas. I am enjoying this book much more than Mayr. The philosophical side of evolution has never been presented to me this way before. After reading the first chapter I actually sat down and thought about why Darwin's idea was so dangerous and threatening for the first time. Dennet seems to say it is dangerous because it is true.

I really liked the analogy of Darwin's idea as the universal acid that eats through traditional thought and everything that is sacred to us. But I also liked the fact that he said that if we fear the idea in that way, we might never learn "some surprising or even shocking things about these treasures." (pg. 82). All in all, I am finding it just the right mix of engaging and thought-provoking, and am looking forward to reading more

Darwin's Delightful Idea
Name: Britt Fremstad (
Date: 02/13/2005 16:59
Link to this Comment: 12845


On page 46, Dennett writes that "anyone today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution is... inexcusably ignorant." (His use of "anyone" is unjustified, me thinks. As for college students, maybe.)

His talk of Gabmbler's FAllacy (p 54) is intriguing... It's an obvious notion, but one which I occasionally forget.

on page 59 he says that some say Mendelian genes dont' exist! What is this? I he suggesting that we're still very backwards in our thinking... that mendelian genes are just another old idea that we're so anxious to hold onto?

Lastly, I thought it was important that he called darwin's idea a"scientific and philosophical revolution" (21)

A new entry point...
Name: Carolyn (cdahlgre@bmc)
Date: 02/13/2005 17:02
Link to this Comment: 12846

To me, Dennett seems to be a truly uniformitarian story teller. His style of writing pulls together so many different aspects of the story of evolution. He fleshes it out, giving more entry points for readers and more 'cracks' to explore. I like how he alludes to other stories to connect them to evolution. Some of them don't seem particularly relevant, but Dennett uses them to illustrate a point, to clarify, or just to explain something in a different way. (An example is found on the page 15 the beginning of the first part of the book: "Neurath has likened science to a boat, if we are to rebuild it, we must rebuild plank by plank while staying afloat in it. The philosopher and the scientist are in the same boat...") I like that Dennett alludes to different things and that he uses so many references. On one hand, I think I may like it because I have an uniformitarian outlook. When I read or hear a story, I tend to naturally link the information that I get to other things. Dennett does that in his book and I feel that it really enriches the story receiving'/interpreting process. There are more links in my thinking and I feel like I have a better understanding of the author's motives and thinking. On the other hand, perhaps I like the style because it lends a kind of scientific credibility to his book. He shows the reader how the thinking of others fits into and supports his views making his book very persuasive.
Thinking about scientific credibility makes me think back to Mayr. Paul asked us to think about the 'purpose' of Dennett and Mayr. He said that they both seem kind of 'pushy'. I wouldn't disagree, but their story telling styles give their 'pushiness' a different feel. Mayr, I felt, we trying to force the idea of evolution onto his readers by overwhelming them with scientific facts and repeatedly referring to science as the source of 'real truth', making evolution a 'fact'. Dennett on the other hand uses a different technique. He seems to challenge his readers to keep reading his book. He says that his book 'is for those who agree that the only meaning of life worth caring about is one that can withstand our best efforts to examine it. Others are advised to close the book now and tiptoe away.' (p. 22) He is basically saying that his book (and the opinions contained within) is a critical analysis and that only close-minded people wouldn't agree with him. I think that writing that was inappropriate, a kind of underhanded way of getting credibility and advocates but I cannot deny its power. While I feel that this 'style' makes Dennett more underhanded than Mayr never bothered to cover his biases for science unless it was with an unintentional presumption that people would be able to comprehend a scientific 'fact' that he thought was 'universal'. Dennett's style makes him (to me) a much deeper and more persuasive read.

Name: Brittany Pladek (
Date: 02/15/2005 00:47
Link to this Comment: 12904

I'm loving Dennet so far. His writing is fluid, engaging, and above all, coherent. I applaud his ability to break down complex concepts into images and ideas that a non-sciency person such as myself can easily grasp.

My favorite section of this week's reading has got to be the Library of Mendel. Apart from the fact that (spacially) it's an amazing concept, it really illustrates evolution's "progress" which really isn't progress while simultaneously explaining both its incredible logic and its inherent randomness. I found the bit about "evolutionary possibilities" and how a species' progress through time closes certain pathways to be particularly enlightening. I'd always wondered why there were, say, no giraffes with stripes. But because evolution is such an elastic concept, it's easy to forget that it operates via a strict genetic algorithm, and that preexisting genes must necessarily determine what mutations, and thus what structural changes, are possible in an animal. 1 can mutate to 3 can mutate to 5, but once at point 5, you can't change the genetics and mutate back to 2 or 4, because the genetic window of opportunity is shut.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Dennet's historical overview. I'm glad he chose to start with a background of the "philosophy" that preceeded Darwin, especially Locke. I loved reading Philo's deconstructions; they really answered a question I'd come away with from Mayr: "couldn't a Mind/Intelligence be just another evolutionary adaptation, and is it correct for humans to assume that the universe operates on the same principle of 'intelligence'?" The answer Philo/Dennet gives is yes---humans automatically assume the universe's design is based in Intelligence, just a world full of spiders would automatically assume that the universe was a giant web.

Name: Annie Sullivan (
Date: 02/15/2005 14:22
Link to this Comment: 12914

I agree with most others that Dennet offers a much more fluid and engaging narrative. He is refreshing to read after Mayr because he so awake to our emotional and philosophical investments in the story of evolution. He opens his book with a reference to an important childhood song, one that still brings a "lump" to his throat.. He seems an honest, more humble writer. He writes as not only a scientist, but as philospher and human being. I even found myelf laughing with him at certain points during the narrative. I appreciate the way that Dennet places not only the audience, but himself, within the story of evolution.. this is a story that he MUST tell and one that everyone MUST listen to. He accosts the reader in a way that is not aggressive but concerned. He is sensitive to the kinds of compromises that people have tried to make in the past, and he gives them thorough attention, yet he is unremitting in his conclusion. There are some moments when Dennet seems to assume Mayr-like dogmatism (i.e.: "To put it bluntly but fairly, anyone today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was pruced by a process of evolution is simply ignorant--inexcusably ignorant, in a world where three out of four people have learned to read and write. . ." (Dennet 46)). What Dennet seems to be utterly intolerant of is the conscious refusal to SEE and attend to the story of evolution. There is no excuse for closing your eyes to something that you simply don't wish to see. I love his sense of urgency... it just seems so much more real and alive than what Mayr offers. Anyway, I am anxious to keep reading because Dennet's work really does seem like a story... i look forward to what unfolds.

Dangerous Ideas
Name: Jessica (
Date: 02/15/2005 16:26
Link to this Comment: 12917

A question and a link:
So the way Prof PG described the story on Monday, it seemed that the transformation from Active Inanimate to Model Builders to Storytellers could have happened (and could happen again, or somewhere else) with different things. I mean, why were the active inanimates quarks, atoms, etc? Did the model builders have to look like multicellular organisms, do the storytellers have to create free will? Everything could look different, but fit follow the same development path? This is not a rhetorical question, I was hoping someone had an answer. (As much of an answer as this class ever has.

And if we're talking about dangerous ideas, here's one:

A new story of the future, one that's freaking me out.

Name: Maureen England (
Date: 02/18/2005 13:52
Link to this Comment: 12998

First of all, reading Dennet is certainly easier than reading Mayr, especially trying to, once again, read it as a "novel" and not as a textbook. I especially liked the beginning, where Dennet attacks the "why?" question. "Why" has been my favorite word for a long time. It's also a word that I don't believe people ask enough, and yet it is natural question to ask. Instead, people seem to jump right to the "because" answer, without really going into the question. Why? You can see it in the "game" that young kids play when they get into the phase of asking questions. The question is always "why" but after a point, we answer "because", not because it's really an answer but because we don't know the answer. Maybe that's the reason that people are so afraid of asking "why", because there may not be a provable answer. Still, it's not to say there isn't one.
I'm sorry, I know I'm repeating myself quite a bit in this idea, but it is an idea that seems to keep popping up in Mayr, in Dennett, in class. Why? Because we haven't found an answer yet.

Tracing history and ancestry through DNA
Name: Nada Ali (
Date: 02/18/2005 21:55
Link to this Comment: 13010

Dennet is so much more fun to read. I dont think hes less aggressive but I still think hes more interesting and hence grabs you. The actual reason for the post is that last night on channel 6 news, they were showing a segment on how african ancestry can be traced through genes. Basically they analyze the gene in order to find out what part of Africa, African Americans are from. The company that does it is called the African Ancestry Inc. and it costs $350 dollars. They trace the X and y chromosomes to see what tribes have the a particular same genetic code. Hence not only do they find the country or region one is from but it can be as specific as knowing what particular tribe one is from. I thought this was fascinating. I dont know if I did the science of it justice but these websites offer some information.

being pushy ....
Name: Paul Grobstein (
Date: 02/19/2005 14:48
Link to this Comment: 13015

Dennett takes an idea/perspective/story telling style from its original context in biology, where it still under rigorous examination and development and still makes lots of people uncomfortable, and blithely extends it to .... everything (a "universal acid"). So, many of us seem to like the way he writes better and that's relevant (form and content being mutually reinforcing), but what about the idea/perspective/story telling style he's promoting? Is the extension beyond biology adequately justified, reasonable, useful? Can one speak legitimately not only about biological evolution but other kinds of evolution as well (cultural?) in the same terms? Are we going to buy this story just because we like Dennett's presentation better than Mayr's, or are there problems here too?

Name: Anjali Vaidya (gvaidya@brynmawr.eduu)
Date: 02/20/2005 03:26
Link to this Comment: 13018

I'm feeling a bit lost in part III of the book, so far. I found part I much easier to understand. Part III feels much more abstract... I think it would've been easier to understand with more concrete examples.

The chapter on memes was just fascinating. I'd heard about the idea before, but never really given it much thought. And I was thinking- the self to me seems to be largely the sum of a person's ideas and memories. Those are what create a person, kind of- what define them and make them recognizable to others. And because of that I found the way that he described memes as "larvae" in your brain just using you as a way to replicate and be passed on kind of disturbing... If you view your own ideas as parasites of a sort, then what happens to the self? Where are *you*, in all that? I don't know, his description just gave me a very weird image of little larvae crowding in a person's brain and perhaps it was that image that disturbed me more than anything else.

And also, I notice that this book predates the widespread use of the internet- I'm sure if it were written later he would have talked a lot more about the internet as a way of spreading memes... It's amazing how fast things spread over the internet. The map after the election showing the United States of Canada and Jesusland, for instance- no one knows where it came from but within a few days it was everywhere.

I've also thought in the past that when I've read a good book and am trying to push it on other people, it's a bit like the book is trying to spread itself through me... And then more people will read it as a result, and spread it in turn. It may not even be a terribly good book. It may just be enjoyable and addictive- which can make it even easier to spread.

And finally, in the chapter on language, there was one bit I had trouble agreeing with- Dennett claims that the problems of free will and consciousness can be understood by humans because a perfect explanation for them exists somewhere in the Library of Babel. I don't think that makes complete sense. It is possible to be able to read and understand a sentence without fully comprehending the concept it's trying to get across- and I think it's entirely possible there're concepts out there that humans cannot grasp. For instance, take a sentence like "The fifth dimension exists." We can understand a sentence like that, and explain it mathematically (I think), but can you really picture the fifth dimension? Can anyone fully comprehend it? I could be wrong, but it doesn't seem likely to me.

memes: Dennett on Dangerous Ground
Name: Lauren Z (
Date: 02/20/2005 11:46
Link to this Comment: 13020

This is the first time I've been introduced to the concept of memetics. It's a fascinating idea, but I'm not really sure I trust it; I think perhaps Dennett has gone a little too far. I thought that applying the concept of evolution to culture was a huge 'no, no,' especially in the discipline of Anthropology. This is an application that could easily be misused, i.e. one culture can claim to be further evolved than another. I know this was a huge problem in the early days of anthropology. And the whole idea of a meme seems very messy. How can we tell where one meme starts and another begins? How can one equate something as abstract as an idea, to a physical process that takes place in the brain/mind. Still, this was a fascinating chapter, and I commend Dennett for addressing the fact that memetics will probably not become a rigorous science. For now, I am just going to view memetics as an interesting metaphor.

Name: Becky Hahn (
Date: 02/20/2005 12:15
Link to this Comment: 13021

Like Anjali, I'm having more trouble understanding part III of Dennett than I did the first part. It is much more abstract, and the examples don't always help get his point across. I enjoy reading the examples and get quite immersed in them, but when they're over I don't always understand what the main point was. The example of the two black boxes was quite fascinating, and I liked how he took us through the process of figuring out how the boxes functioned, but I'm still not completely clear on the meaning of the example. In addition, it bothered me how the boxes detected "truth" or "falsehood". There are so many statments that are neither. For example, in the vein of things flying, you could state that "birds can fly" which is generally true, but not universally true (ostriches etc). Maybe this doesn't really matter since as Dennett said, philosophers can just make up random things to prove their points, but it still bothers me.
Also a question: What does Dennett mean when he says "meme meme" for example on p. 362?

Name: Jessica (
Date: 02/20/2005 13:40
Link to this Comment: 13023

(I'd thought that "the meme meme" was the idea of an idea, like, the 'fact' of having an idea, that is a thing in your head in itself.)

In the "Evolution of Meanings" chapter, one idea lead me to a new question. On 416 in the footnote, Dennett mentions one of the facts you could tell an AI is "toasters can't fly." But the thing also "deduce surprising implications." So I'm wondering: if you explain to the thing what flying is, and you show it a toaster, will understand? Same thing with human minds; how much info do we need before we make the inferences? Is that the point where we have meaning?

But Dennett's black boxes don't do it for me, like PG's computer games in class, they never move me. I keep thinking that someone made them to be that way. They don't work for me, because I know that someone designed these examples for this purpose. Dennett didn't find those boxes; no matter how plausible they are, he invented them. I know my love for the Library of Babel seems to oppose this, but that at least is a thrilling concept.

I'm also getting a little fed up with Dennett's 'y'all suck' attitude towards the opposition, even more so than Mayr, cause Dennett's dropping names like he wants to rumble. At the end of some of the "the other guy is a big fat idiot" sections, I'm not always sure what his point is, other than that the other guy is wrong, wrong, wrong.

I googled pictures of all of them, just in case they do fight. Chomsky, Gould, Searle, Penrose and Godel (if he were alive) look like if they got together, they could take Dennett, easy, especially since Gould looks like a young Andy Reid. But Dennett kind of looks like classic pictures of God. Maybe he's got superpowers.

Dennett Part III
Name: Austin (
Date: 02/20/2005 14:06
Link to this Comment: 13024

I, too, am having trouble with Dennett's third part of the book. I really enjoyed his first part and understood most everything he wrote about, but now I am feeling slightly overwhelmed and confused. I especially don't quite grasp the concept on memes. He spent so much time on them that I feel I am most certainly supposed to understand every detail, but I just don't. I felt like maybe I understood it more when he first started explaining them without so much detail, but once the pages of memes just kept going and going, I felt like I was getting more and more lost. For example: "I suggest that the meme's-eye view of what happened to the meme meme is quite obvious: 'humanist' minds have set up a particularly aggressive set of filters against memes coming from 'sociobiology'..." I'm sorry...but... what? By the end of the chapter I so overwhelming confused and full of nonunderstanding that I just decided to plod along and worry about it later. Hopefully it will be clarified in class this week...

Dannett Part III
Name: ()
Date: 02/20/2005 14:31
Link to this Comment: 13026

Darwin's Dangerous Idea, week 2
Name: Kelsey Smith (
Date: 02/20/2005 14:42
Link to this Comment: 13027

I am completely lost. I don't understand the concept of meme. More importantly, though, I don't understand how the transition from unicellular organisms to more complex lifeforms occurred. The explanation on page 341 doesn't work for me. Yes, unicellular organisms existed for several billion years. Great. But saying that one day a muliticellular organism invaded into an environment for which it was suited does not tell me how the multicellular organism came into existance!

Name: Ariel Singer (
Date: 02/20/2005 15:01
Link to this Comment: 13028

I also found the chapter on memes to be confusing, but only because Dennett took the idea so far. I think that I understand the basic concepts, but then he throws in an example that seems rather far fetched. I do think that the idea of memes is an interesting one, but it all seems so conceptual. Perhaps I have been living too long in the land of the scientific rather than the philosophical, but while reading about the memes I often had to restrain myself from thinking, "so what?" How does it really effect us if we put this label on some already-obvious patterns. Yes, we can then attempt to extrapolate more from those patterns, but the information that we gather is not really based on any solid "facts", just suppositions. I think that that is what bothers me most of all. I am not sure that I agree with what I am about to say, but I think that it is possible to construe this idea as detrimental to the acceptance of evolution, the genetic kind. There are just so many gaps and suppositions that it is easy to refute, and there are people out there who might think that by disproving this memes type of evolution, they are disproving all evolution.
Anyway, there are a lot of fascinating links out there about memes, most of which seem rather, well, extreme. But if anyone is interested I did find a link to Richard Dawkins' essay Viruses of the Mind:

mind once again blown (it's like shooting fish in a barrel)
Name: Eileen (
Date: 02/20/2005 15:03
Link to this Comment: 13029

when my sisters feel like shocking someone or telling an unexpected joke, I play the "straight man", because I guess I feel the need for the presence of someone flabbergasted or countering a revelation with "oh no she didn't!". I mean, for whatever it's worth, I've found a social value in being the guy that gets pied in the face, but in another sense, it may be just who I am, stripped of any of this phony awareness- i didn't see anything coming, for most of the things that gocern my life- not Bush winning, not nothing.
so I'm not just flattering dennett's mind-virility or this course's legitimacy when I declare my mind blown. I'd prefer to be blase, the way i act about boys, acting like they can't hurt me or surprise me anymore, that i am beyond all that now that I'm twenty, but all that falls apart easily when we enter discussion of things like "memes", which is the "no, seriously, I'm not being poetic or humble" interpretation that we are further models of genetic expression, committing to memory and transmitting ideas, which are replacing genes as the units of evolution. i'm even reconsidering my dislike for dennett's godless universe because he writes some pretty fine sentences.
I used to really like the idea of a collective unconscious, so why don't I like the memes? it feels like the negation of human creativity, just when i've partially adjusted to a story of creation that negates God's creative control and existence. I know my open and posted disappointment is nothing but a testament to this lack of human creative power, that I can't come up with counter ideas to this new depressing one, but since it's the day of rest and I'd like to prove that I did the reading, I'm just telling yall what I'm feeling, as needless as it is.

Name: Jennifer (
Date: 02/20/2005 15:11
Link to this Comment: 13030

I enjoyed what Dennett was saying in the third part of the book, though, I admit that it took a while before I got to the point where I understood what he was talking about. I particularly liked the discussion where Dennett describes that we never pass on memes unaltered. I think this is where I finally began to understand what Dennett was talking about because this gave me a better parallel to evolution.

I felt that I could finally comprehend what was going on since I could analyze my own stories to see changes from when I hear them and how I relate them to others. This feels like there is more purpose involved in the transmission of memes. This is a product of the way that people process information, but usually there is a thought about the best way to extend information. There is also probably varying amounts of purpose going into this since the way a story is told might have a long term purpose or just the purpose of trying to allow someone to understand it in terms they understand.

Part III
Name: Liz Paterek (
Date: 02/20/2005 15:31
Link to this Comment: 13031

As I read this section I kept feeling like Dennet was extending himself too far. I was thinking how a reader could feel that concepts like evolution apply to more then just biology, ie society, and misinterpret their p[lace there. I thought of how Darwinsism was misused as a survival of the fittest within in a society. I fear that blind application of concepts can occur when an author invites individuals to bridge connections between science and society when they individual has a sound foundation in neither. We cannot apply evolution to society because it often gets misunderstood. Evolution is not a process of bettering, it is a meandering that occurs while that allows the most adaptable thing to stay in existance. Stories that relate science to other can be dangerous because they often try too hard to connect science to the rest of the world and make it seem friendly, and forget about important details that can lead people to misunderstandings.

reaction to Dennett
Name: alexandra mnuskin (
Date: 02/20/2005 15:49
Link to this Comment: 13033

Since I forgot to post last week I just want to say how much fun Dennett is to read. He is very witty and very accessible. I do believe that he is every bit as pompous as Mayr, but because of his subject matter and style he is lighter and easier to read. Comparing him to Mayr however, seems to me quite useless because they have very different stories to tell. Mayr's goal is to give a concise explanation of what evolution is. Dennett is going beyond that into what implications Darwin's idea has for our understanding of just about everything. The idea of an algorithm that accounts for such a complex process as evolution I found particularly fascinating, especially since to my mind it shows the complete compatibility between evolution and a belief is some supreme being that might have created the rules of this algorithmic process.

Name: Haley Bruggemann (
Date: 02/20/2005 16:42
Link to this Comment: 13034

The first chapter of this section, on the meme, was what I found the most fascinating, but also hard to believe. One of the more interesting concepts for me was the evolution of culture. Dennett says that "cultural evolution operates many orders of magnitude faster than genetic evolution", and I had never really considered that so many changes that have occcurred (such as the rapid change in height over the years) may not have have been due in any part to genetics.

I'm not sure if I believe memes "invaded" and created the human mind. Perhaps it was the way he explained it, or the way I read it, that I may have missed a better definition of "meme" and found it a little confusing. Some of what Dennett claimed made me a little wary...and some of it just seemed slightly ridiculous to me when I first read it, such as the "considerable competition" among the memes for a spot in as many human host minds as possible. Once I got used to the comparison of memes to viruses and parasites, it was a little better. I did enjoy the examples in this section, as in the first. I liked reading about the first three notes of a symphony being a meme- as in a melody not fully formed, and his grandson's "mutant meme". I think it will be a very interesting topic to discuss more fully.

evolution of ideas
Name: Tonda Shimbo (
Date: 02/20/2005 16:50
Link to this Comment: 13035

I really enjoyed this section of Dennett's book. Albeit a bit confusing and overwhelming, it was a really interesting idea that I've always enjoyed studying and building on - that human culture and ideas evolve as well as our species, but at a much faster rate and in somewhat different ways. I enjoyed the idea of memes, continuously floating through culture-space - it reminded me of the conversation we had in class about whether or not everything evolves. Cultural evolution particularly interests me, perhaps more than even biological evolution, because of the incorporation of morals and cultural behavior. Ever since I was little I used to rationalize out why people do and say the things that they do, because a lot of times it would frustrate me, and this cultural evolution idea seems to fit in quite well with the (few) ideas in sociology and psychology and anthropology that I know of.

One thing that confused me, however, (and I could have just misunderstood what Dennett was saying) was how cultural evolution could affect our physical existence. Dennett used the example of height, and how in the past couple hundred years, humans have grown in average height by several feet, even, which is much too quickly for biological evolution. But I don't understand how that could simply be a product of culture. Overall though, I found these chapters particularly interesting, and it will be even more interesting to see what everyone else got out of it during class discussion.

Dennett- Part III
Name: Laine (
Date: 02/20/2005 16:52
Link to this Comment: 13036

I agree with Becky and Anjali, part three is far more abstract and the examples that Dennett provides are not as concrete. From what I understand of it, the concept of "meme" is interesting in the way it seems to explain the way our culture has evolved. I am unclear though how art promotes human evolution as Dennett claims on pagee 343. Taken at face value the idea of memes is interesting and it seems to fit, however, as I read further and delve farther into his examples memes become more and more confusing and do not seem as applicable in the broad ways I previously thought they were. Overall Dennett has been enjoyable to read and I have found him more accesible than Mayr in terms of understanding the evolution of culture and the uniqueness of humans in that respect. I just wish that Dennett could rein himself in a bit more and use more concrete examples with fewer abstractions.

Super Duper Dennett
Name: Carolyn (
Date: 02/20/2005 16:58
Link to this Comment: 13037

Like many others who have posted, Dennett is beginning to lose his luster. It bothered me in the first section of the book that he dismissed those who challenge evolution (or even adapt it) as ignorant stupid people. In later chapters, he takes this even further and I find his slander more and more distracting. Instead of adding to his argument, it detracts because it makes me want to know more abut what these other theorists/thinkers/philosophers think. I thought that Jessica's post was amusing and that she had an interesting idea. He comment about Dennett having superpowers reminded me of a section in the book where Dennett wrote about who created god (super god and super duper god). While that image is very funny, it shows Dennett putting things/life in the form of a hierarchy (an image that I am finding helpful... kind of a modified tree of life... a hierarchy of order). And what is at the top of the hierarchy? I don't really think we can ever know. One of the other things that has made Dennett difficult to read is the shear amount of information he introduces. Also, he jumps from one subject to another; it is hard to follow his story, especially when I am trying to read the book as a novel. The book is chock full of ideas and theories, but I don't feel like I have the time to really engage with them and think critically about them. In order to read the material for the class deadlines, I find that I don't have the time for deep readings. I try to go back to the ideas that I found most interesting later, and the class discussions have helped, but I still feel like I am trying to absorb, interpret, and really understand a lot of what Dennett is presenting to us.

Dennett Part III
Name: L.T.(lt)
Date: 02/20/2005 17:01
Link to this Comment: 13038

I've been having a lot of trouble reading Dennett. His writing style bothers me a lot, more than Mayr's did. It seems like he gets so caught up in how he's expressing his idea that it's hard to figure out what the idea actually is. I've had to reread sections more times than I do with other books, just to piece together what he's talking about. Also, while Dennett does discuss answers to possible questions just as the questions occur to me in the course of the book, I have the vague feeling that my thinking is being shepherded. It's most unsettling.

Yes, Dennett is useful
Name: Britt Fremstad (
Date: 02/20/2005 17:10
Link to this Comment: 13039

I find Dennett's aggressive story telling style very useful. He is upfront, witty, and has an obvious aim in writing this book. (His aim being that he would like to make people appreciate--rather than be intimidated by--Darwin's outlook on life...) I don't mind him bashing other scientists' ideas; the debates need to happen. (Furthermore, he provides enough references for us readers to read other people's ideas, as well.) The only line I recall being too unfair was when he said that anyone who doubted evolution was "inexcusably ignorant." His use of "everyone" is what disturbed me--foranging groups and horticultural socities probably should not be included in this "everyone." (And if he didn't mean to include such groups he should have said so.)

I did find it useful how he brought cultural evolution into his story. I was confused in class last Wednesday before Anne explained that humans today are CULTURALLY evolving, rather than GENETICALLY evolving. Or, at least, that we are evolving at a cultural level much faster than we are on a genetic level. How appropriate, then, that Dennett expanded on this notion in chapter 12. The idea of speaking, writing, reading, and listening being cultural DNA was useful, if not totally analogous. And then, how culture is like a crane-making crane... So, yes, even if this comparison is not appropriate to a professional anthropologist, it is useful to me as a student.

I hate cultural evolution
Name: Arshiya Urveeja Bose (
Date: 02/20/2005 17:20
Link to this Comment: 13040

Ok. So I am finally admitting I like Dennet. But as much as he presents me with intriguing metaphors, I'm not sure his ideas are completely problem-free.

For me, the biggest glitch is discussing cultural evolution in Darwinian terms. Dennet suggests that in humans, cultural evolution has overshot biological evolution and that we are evolving via exogenetic inheritance. Dennet believes that cultural evolution, memes, etc. are translatable and compatible with Darwinian natural selection. I don't buy this idea at all. I am not sure how fluid random variation, selective reproduction and heritability are with the elements of cultural evolution, memes and so on.

It's all a bit flaky. It seems like just another manipulation to try and explain how humans are a few more steps evolved than chimpanzees or the rest of the animal kingdom. When will we give up this struggle for uniqueness?

Name: Brittany Pladek (
Date: 02/20/2005 20:03
Link to this Comment: 13044

Although I was interested in Dennett's discussion of the gene/meme biological/cultural parallel, I want to talk about something I read by accident (haha, *who* didn't look at the syllabus closely enough?). It's on page 154, and those of you who find Dennett arrogant will probably dislike him even more if you get a chance to read it.

Ok. Here Dennet is discussing why it's such a neat thing that evolution is a theory which can be (in the sense that it admits the possibility of being, and not in the sense of absolution) proven via facts. He decides to field the Creationist objection "you can't prove my religion wrong because it's based on faith and faith is, by its nature, unprovable." Dennet responds to this objection with more vehemence than I've yet encountered in his book. He relies on metaphor so heavily I'm not sure I understand it all, but the general gist of his reply seems to be that faith operates outside the boundaries of "rational judgement," that Creationists use the "faith" defense when they've been backed into a corner by Science, and that faith has no place in the search for "truth."

I'll say it flat out: I dislike Mayr, and Dennett gets much, much nastier here. But I have to admit I agree with his basic argument. It does seem to me that religious faith is the magic rabbit in the hat that creationists pull out when evolutionists disprove their claims. If faith really *were* the determining factor in creationist belief, then creationists would have no need to even *try* disproving evolutionists. But they have a long history of doing so, from the pre-Darwinian philosophers who pointed to evolutionary adaptation as a sign of God's plan, to the Scopes Monkey trial in the 1920s, to the Intelligent Design movement today. If creationists are so sure that their faith is correct, and if they eschew the need of any other proof but faith to uphold their beliefs, why do they bother with trying to beat the evolutionists at their own game (namely scientific proof)?

It reminds me of a story I read in a Douglas Adams book (HUMOR--please don't anyone be offended!). Two characters are discussing the Babel fish, this little animal that you stick in your ear and it translates any language so you can understand it (yes, this is what is named after):

"Now it is such a bizarrely impossible coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the nonexistence of God. The arguement goes something like this:
"I refuse to prove that I exist," says God, "for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing."
"But," say Man, "the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED."
"Oh dear," says God, "I hadn't though of that" and promply vanishes in a puff of logic."

Fictional and irreverent, of course, but it makes you think...

Great Quote
Name: Michael Heeney (
Date: 02/21/2005 07:49
Link to this Comment: 13054

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is such a great book (hopefully the story will translate well to the upcoming movie), and that quote makes a point that I thought about while reading Dennet, which is that rather than trying to disprove evolution scientifically I feel creationists should just use the increasing understanding of its mechanism as evidence for some sort of divine construction. The brash carpet-sweeping that such ardent anti-creationists like Meyer commit for the "entropic" and "random" elements of evolution (unexplained adaptation, changes in phenotype) actually gives the creationists good evidence for an intelligent design. As the quote indicates, when they resort to the faith supercedes proof argument that Dennet pigeonholes them into, the overwhelming evidence for evolution and for other predictable scientific processes disprove their position rather than strengthening it.

Whats also funny about the quote is that even if God did dissapear into a puff of logic, and didn't actually exist logically, the fact that the very discussion took place leads to a subjective existence. I've often wondered why scientists and theologians don't get along, because it seems to me they're both searching for the same sort of transcendental truth (God, immutable mathematical laws until they turn out to be wrong, theories of physical processes, even chaos theory and entropy frame illogic in a cause and effect universe), just going about it differently. I guess maybe because their stories end up being so similiar in fulfilling people's psychological needs, i.e stability and purpose and a sense of understanding in the world, they vie for dominance in people's minds and both try to claim logical superiority. Dennet seems to think that theology is always allegorical and imparts moral and social lessons while science is always factual and imparts objective and practical knowledge, and while this is perhaps a quaint ideal to strive for, it doesn't exist. Modern people see psychologists (individuals certified in the science of the mind) to discuss their mental problems instead of chatting with a priest about their sins in a confessional. Mind has replaced Spirit as the primary arbiter of one's health. But modern physics has already begun to converge with many philosophical tenets of ancient religions (The Dancing Wu-Li Masters is a great book about this). Personally I would wager that in another five hundred years or so modern science will understand and perhaps augment "spiritual" processes even more than it already has begun to (the experimentally-documented and carpet-swept effectiveness of prayer in physical and emotional healing, "lay on hands" experiments with plants where people with more positive attitudes correlate with better plant growth than people with negative ones, the prevalent belief in transcendent personal energy and alternate dimension/afterlife hypotheses, the correlation between spirituality and positive behavior, how Buddhist monks permanently alter their brainwaves to more frequently inhabit a delta state even when they aren't meditating, the effects of such brainwaves on their environment, "alternative medicine" curing for thousands of years in ways "Western Medicine" deems impossible, etc.). This will eventually increase to the extent that there will no longer be any distinction between Mind and Spirit, and such debates will cease among rational people. Such a rigid duality is, like the old wave-particle duality before quantum mechanics or the ingroup-outgroup one found in all racist and nationalist ideologies, antithetical to the discovery of new paradigms and thus decidedly unscientific.

Cultural Evolution
Name: Maja (
Date: 02/21/2005 11:59
Link to this Comment: 13057

Reading Denett's arguments that a meme is to a gene as cultural evolution is to biological evolution was interesting to me especially since I wrote my first paper on the Evolution of Culture. (Which you are all welcome to read if you are interested in my own personal spin on the matter).

I am fascinated by the topic at question, however, I'm not so sure that I would jump to agree with everything that Denett says. For example, I don't see meme's as parasites, and although he may have made the parallel in an effort relate his abstract idea with a more tangible one, it's not a comparison that I would have ever chosen to make. I have personally seen, felt, and experienced cultural evolution and I can't stop myself from personally relating to the ideas and arguments. As I have stated in my paper "For the first time in my life, I am making a sketch in print of a problem that has been on my mind for quite some time now. It is a problem that I can not avoid just because of the circumstances of my life. The only credentials I have to reflect on the subject at all come through those circumstances, through nothing more than a set of chances; my very own experiences."

I can see how we can make cultural evolution analogous to biological evolution. However, I feel that cultural evolution remains a lot more fluid and variable because each human can experience its evolution within their own lifetime, and as Anne had mentioned in class, cultural evolution is much more rapid than the painstakingly slow process of biological evolution.

continuing ...
Name: Paul Grobstein (
Date: 02/21/2005 14:52
Link to this Comment: 13068

Thanks, all, for conversation today, skeptical and otherwise. Just so you know I know, I didn't quite finish today's story, so if you're a little puzzled about how the neocortex is going to help with "altruism" or Maja's story of the burning house or memes ("parasites" or ?) or fee will, that's ok. I think its all there in the notes, so you're welcome to take a crack at it yourself. And we'll come back to it, and to how it relates (and doesn't relate) to Dennett's story.

Response to today's class
Name: Arshiya Urveeja Bose (
Date: 02/21/2005 15:04
Link to this Comment: 13069

Was definitely confused in class today.
Couldn't identify how to make the connection between the neocortex and story telling. Actually, I think I don't understand the idea of story telling at all anymore.

But from what I read in Dennet, he seemed to suggest that the difference between model-makers and story-tellers is not that model-makers are incapable of creating stories but that sotry-tellers possess certain tools that allow them to compare each of their stories, or that a story-teller's story is drawn from millions of other stories.

This seemed to be similar to what PG said sometime ago about story-tellers have the ability to imagine a parallel world.

Still thinking...

"fee will"
Name: Anne Dalke (
Date: 02/21/2005 22:29
Link to this Comment: 13088

Although I was told today that "they got it" (even if I didn't...) I'm not sure "they" did-- and I'm sure I didn't. Here for the record are the points (here for the answering are the questions?) where I'm more confused than I used to be:

Frog Brain Plus

Name: maria (
Date: 02/22/2005 01:43
Link to this Comment: 13107

"I really don't think I have ever had the experience of not having experience. Of not being aware. Of not thinking." - Anne

But isn't that the point? If you weren't aware, you wouldn't be aware of not being aware. When you say "*I* don't think I have ever had the experience of not having experience" that's precisely the distinction between the existnce we're aware of having and the existence we actually have. We exist under anesthesia, we exist in coma, we exist passed out...we just aren't "aware" at those moments, we aren't "thinking" in the way that we usually use the term. I don't find this concept particularly troubling, but I think that a lot of people do. I think it has a lot to do with people thinking about consciouness as being somewhat magical, that because we think of consciusness as being "us" we tend to think of it as an all or nothing thing, that the way in which we think we exist is an accurate refelction of how and where our sense of self in fact originates.

Class today!
Name: Carolyn (
Date: 02/22/2005 03:01
Link to this Comment: 13113

I got really excited at the end of class today. Paul's comparison of the frog brain and the human brain got me thinking (like Maja) about the first paper I had written for the class. I wrote about Descartes... there is a lot said about him on serendip. In fact, he even has is own series of forums devoted to him. I am not going to pretend like I have read through it all (it would take hours upon hours) but I will admit to browsing through it. Paul's discussion today reminded me of Descartes theory of Dualism (and I am sorry if I misrepresent any of Descartes philosophy... I am most definitely a philosophy novice, so correct me if I make mistakes). Descartes was concerned about how the mind and body interacted. He attributed a 'soul' to human beings and thought that the pineal gland (because it was the one structure he could observe that was not doubled, having a partner in the opposite lobe of the brain) was the gateway through which the soul could influence the body.

Anyways, I should get to the point... In class today, as Paul talked about the neocortex as our own internal story teller, I thought that the neocortex could be a modern philosophical 'seat' for the mind. I am still mulling this over, but I really like this idea (especially because it seems to display an evolution of Descartes idea... Gall was first to place mental functioning in the brain... Descartes placed the 'mind' in the pineal gland, some modern philosophers place it in the neocortex... it is its own evolution...). I have a few questions... Is mind and soul the same thing? How are mind and soul connected to consciousness? Could our story telling ability be located outside the brain (like in a spiritually significant place like the heart?)? Is the 'mind' less/more connected to the body in different states of consciousness (I would venture to call sleep and dreaming different states of consciousness)? Are our 'souls' (or minds or consciousnesses) our story tellers? What happens when you have a lack of consciousness (like maybe a coma... which I think is related to a connective web-like (and it had to come back to the web... I told you I was an uniformitarian story teller) structure in the brain called the reticular formation)? And, following off of Anne and Maria's questions... can you have a lack of consciousness (which leads to a lot of ethical questions about coma patients)?

On another note, I thought that Brittney and Michael had a nice link when they referred us to "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"... funny stuff. With all the heady conversations we have been having about suns falling apart and such it is nice to take a step back and have a laugh... (After all, we are all going to be destroyed to make way for an interstellar highway right?) and the fact that the humor has intelligence is a bonus. I am going to add another injection of humor, this time relating back to our initial class discussions. Has anyone ever heard Eddie Izzard's "The Tyranny of Ducks"... he talks about the hole in the 'Biblical Flood' story? Ducks would have survived ("We normally swim down here, now we're going to swim up here"...) He says that all the evil ducks must have survived the flood... technically, the world should be ruled by ducks... funny stuff... Makes me wonder about the 'holes' we don't see or gloss over in other stories...

Well I will stop now... 'night everyone!

taking seriously the plants' point of view
Name: Anne Dalke (
Date: 02/22/2005 22:43
Link to this Comment: 13145

On alternate days this semester, I'm teaching another "two cultures-crossing" course on Beauty with Sharon Burgmayer of the BMC Chemistry Dept. Sharon thought our class on "The Evolution of Stories" would take an interest in a book she's been reading, Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire, which intersects quite interestingly w/ the lecture we got on Monday about how much of what we observe in other things (like plants) can be accounted for "algorithmically," rather than by our own characteristics of internal experience and free will. As Sharon reports it, Pollan argues that our "grammar" of dividing the world into subjects and objects is "all wrong, really nothing more than a self-serving conceit":

A bumblebee would probably also regard himself as a subject in the garden and the bloom he plunders for its drop of nectar as an object. But we know this is the failure of his imagination. The truth of the matter is that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom....In a coevolutionary bargain like the one struck by the bee and the apple tree, the two parties act on each other to advance their individual interests but wind up trading favors....Consciousness needn't enter into it....Bees and humans alike have their criteria for selection....The fact that one of us has evolved to become intermittently aware of its desires makes no difference whatsoever to the flower...taking part in this arrangement. All those plants care about is what every being cares about on the most basic level: making more copies of itself. Through trial and error the plant species have found that the best way to do that is to induce animals--bees or people, it hardly matters--to spread their genes....I approach...the complex reciprocal relationship between the human and the natural world...from a somewhat unconventional angle: I take seriously the plants' point of view....

So, back to the drawing/discussing board: does our taking seriously the plants' point of view mean acknowledging that they use us, w/out a conscious awareness that they are doing so....?

and in this corner: the social point of view...
Name: Anne Dalke (
Date: 02/22/2005 23:15
Link to this Comment: 13147

Have been chewing over (among other things) that "ideal" idea of "altruism" we were given to work with on Monday. In hopes that we (at least in one small upstairs group...) might work with it further on Wednesday, I offer you, from Wikipedia, this geneology:

The word "altruism" was coined by Auguste Comte, the French founder of positivism....He believed that individuals had a moral obligation to serve the... "greater good" of humanity. Comte says, in his Cathechisme Positiviste, that "[the] social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service.... This ["to live for others"], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely." Advocates of altruism as an ethical doctrine maintain that one ought to act, or refrain from acting, so that benefit or good is bestowed on other people, if necessary to the exclusion of one's own interests...altruism is distinguished from ethical egoism, which prescribes that one's actions ought to further one's own interests.

In the study of behavior, altruism refers to behavior by an individual that increases the fitness of another individual while decreasing the fitness of the actor. This would appear to be counter-intuitive if one presumes that natural selection acts on the individual. Natural selection, however, acts on the gene pool of the subjects, not on each subject individually. Recent developments in game theory have provided some explanations for apparent altruism, as have traditional evolutionary analyses. Among the proposed mechanisms are:

The study of altruism was the initial impetus behind George R. Price's development of the Price equation which is a mathematical equation used to study genetic evolution. An interesting example of altruism is found in the cellular slime moulds, such as Dictyostelium mucoroides. These protists live as individual amoebae until starved, at which point they aggregate and form a multicellular fruiting body in which some cells sacrifice themselves to promote the survival of other cells in the fruiting body. Social behavior and altruism share many similarities to the interactions between the many parts (cells, genes) of an organism, but are distinguished by the ability of each individual to reproduce indefinitely without an absolute requirement for its neighbors.

Name: Maja (
Date: 02/23/2005 04:58
Link to this Comment: 13156

The idea of altruism is a perplexing one. Can selfishness be found at the core of even the most selfless actions? Why are some people so selfish that they refuse to share even when they have excess, while others are selfless to the point of risking their own lives for the sake of others?

From the short debate on altruism in yesterday's class, I began thinking about the blurred lines between the action of altruism with the emotion of compassion. I believe that the two are not necessarily synonymous but are often equated with one another. Not all altruistic acts are performed out of compassion, and not all compassion leads to altruism.

I think that altruism is a mysterious phenomenon that stems from some combination of nature vs. nurture. It is possible, that over time, human altruism has progressed into a rewarding behavior almost completely independent of its original biological motive. And perhaps it has been evolving both biologically and culturally. I could go into much greater detail with this, but it would take up the whole forum, so I'll leave it at this for now.

on altruism....
Name: Anne Sullivan (
Date: 02/23/2005 15:33
Link to this Comment: 13168

Much of our discussion in class today emerged from this notion of "pure" altruism... We wanted to distinguish between better/virtuous forms and those that bear some kind of selfish impulse... It is strange that we naturally sought the kind of Platonic, essentialistic "form" of altruism in order to define the term itself.

It seems rather that there is a spectrum of altruistic behavior, and not one in which the categories / gradations are fixed.. Likewise, there is no "pure" form at one end, but maybe a assymptote that can approach, but never reach an ultimate / pure state. Pure altruism would entail a clear detriment and benefit, yet we seemed to agree in class that such results are subjective and never isolated from one another. There is no disadvantage without some concomitant advantage... we may not see that when trying to impose a "altruistic / non-altruistic classification" upon a certain event, but it is always there in some form.

The term altruism hinges on dichotomies that can never be clearly demarcated. Who is "hurt" and who "benefits" from a purported act of altruism? More importantly, how do these categories overlap? We discussed in class today the ambiguity of the self and the other regarding acts of altruism ( On whose behalf is the actor acting? Is it just the individual? Is it the family? The nation? The species? The "Unit" will determine the assignment of the benefit /detriment result).

It would be easy to say that altruism is a social construct, which it may largely be, except for the biological component of altruistic behavior.... It just seems so difficult to apply observations drawn from other animal communities to human behavior.. because we are consious, thinking beings.. story tellers that can imagine outcomes beyond the self... It seems like the only way to understand a biological basis for altruistic behavior is to consider those situations in which mutual benefit results from an "altruistic act..." If the individual is struggling against natural selection.. it seems like altruism would only be a selected trait or strategy if there was a more widespread benefit (not the clean detriment / benefit system that seems a false binary anyway)...

"meme-ing" making
Name: Anne Dalke (
Date: 02/23/2005 18:31
Link to this Comment: 13186

Interesting...based on Annie's report about altruism, it sounds as if the downstairs group was today several branches ahead of the upstairs group on the evolutionary tree....

We upstairs spent most of class re-working our way from the bottom up.

Got a-holt of memes (=units of cultural transmission, aka modifiable ideas) and worked through the degree to which cultural evolution can(not) effect biological evolution. Reminded ourselves of the slow rate of biological change.

Looked briefly @ the active inanimate.

Then worked for a while w/ the model-builders. Made an important decision that they have language, because they build models, i.e. have a symbolic representational system--they see the fly in the eye, in order to reach out and grab the fly, etc. etc.

Then settled in w/ the story-tellers, whom we distinguished from model-builders not because they have language, but rather by their ability to

We ended class w/ the question, "so where does meaning come from? what motivates it, what generates it, if it's not built into the system from the get-go?"

Will perhaps get back to you on this one.

Altruism, Conflict & Cooperation
Name: Arshiya Urveeja Bose (
Date: 02/23/2005 21:57
Link to this Comment: 13193

I loved class today!
No reflection yet. Still processing...But here's an aside:

I spent around three months last year doing evolutionary bio research on selfishness and altruism demonstrated by eusocial paper wasps. Besides learning how to avoid being stung on my nose, I inadvertently picked up some other things along the way as well! The scientist I was working with was looking at why the queen wasp is the only reproducing member in a wasp society. All sisters, workers exist simply to feed, groom the queen who beats them up every few minutes and doesn't let them make babies! I know that this was a huge dilemma to Darwin and he dedicated an entire chapter in Origin thinking about bees and wasps. How can individuals without own offspring exist if reproduction and inheritance are the foundation of the whole theory?

The proposed explanation for altruistic behavior in insects is the idea of group / kin selection (Hamilton's Rule). According to this idea, the unit of selection for altruistic alleles of an originally selfish gene would be the colony or deme (gene, meme, NOW DEME ??), not the individual. More simply, it is the idea that in looking after your sibling, the queen, you're actually adding advantage to your own reproductive fitness. Or parent - offspring is not the only way in which an individual can ensure the spreading of one's genes. So this is another case of situations appearing altruistic, cooperative when it's actually just another bunch of selfish genes. Or model-makers responding to certain rules / genes.

So this scientist, although he made me sit in his lab, sorry VESPIARY (place you keep wasps) for hours with my nose against the wasp cage, is actually pretty cool. He's also studying conflict in animal societies. For example, why do male langurs perform infanticide, kill their own offspring when clearly it seems contradictory to Darwinism? Or why do male tigers kill their cubs? (it's always the males isn't it ?)

So is this "conflict", "cooperation" and "altruism" and outcome of cultural evolution or a biological one? It seems as though the things we interpret as culture are very easily explained by biology as well. Following on from our discussion upstairs, perhaps "meaning", "purpose", "truth" are just alternate stories. It is this ability to imagine alternatives, parallels, and to compare many stories that makes story-tellers different from model-maker paper wasps.


HTML Question
Name: Arshiya Urveeja Bose (
Date: 02/23/2005 21:58
Link to this Comment: 13194

Why does it add those funny symbols every time there is a capital letter or comma ?

On Altruism, Cooperation and Conflict
Name: Arshiya Urveeja Bose (
Date: 02/23/2005 22:05
Link to this Comment: 13195

I loved class today! No reflection yet. Still processing...But here's an aside:

I spent around three months last year doing evolutionary bio research on selfishness and altruism demonstrated by eusocial paper wasps. Besides learning how to avoid being stung on my nose, I inadvertently picked up some other things along the way as well! The scientist I was working with was looking at why the queen wasp is the only reproducing member in a wasp society. All sisters, workers exist simply to feed, groom the queen who beats them up every few minutes and doesn't let them make babies! I know that this was a huge dilemma to Darwin and he dedicated an entire chapter in Origin thinking about bees and wasps. How can individuals without own offspring exist if reproduction and inheritance are the foundation of the whole theory?

The proposed explanation for altruistic behavior in insects is the idea of group / kin selection (Hamilton's Rule). According to this idea, the unit of selection for altruistic alleles of an originally selfish gene would be the colony or deme (gene, meme, NOW DEME ??), not the individual. More simply, it is the idea that in looking after your sibling, the queen, you're actually adding advantage to your own reproductive fitness. Or parent - offspring is not the only way in which an individual can ensure the spreading of one's genes. So this is another case of situations appearing altruistic, cooperative when it's actually just another bunch of selfish genes. Or model-makers responding to certain rules / genes. ?

So this scientist, although he made me sit in his lab, sorry VESPIARY (place you keep wasps) for hours with my nose against the wasp cage, is actually pretty cool. He's also studying conflict in animal societies. For example, why do male langurs perform infanticide, kill their own offspring when clearly it seems contradictory to Darwinism? Or why do male tigers kill their cubs? (it's always the males isn't it ?) ?

So is this "conflict", "cooperation" and "altruism" and outcome of cultural evolution or a biological one? It seems as though the things we interpret as culture are very easily explained by biology as well. Following on from our discussion upstairs, perhaps "meaning", "purpose", "truth" are just alternate stories. It is this ability to imagine alternatives, parallels, and to compare many stories that makes story-tellers different from model-maker paper wasps. Phew!

altruism: theory, practice (and history?)
Name: Anne Dalke (
Date: 02/24/2005 23:23
Link to this Comment: 13219

Beginning altruistically: Arshiya, you'll find above the explanation for all those funny looking characters: because you, like Carolyn before you, copied and pasted from some word processing program that uses hidden interpreting symbols that caused the browser to do some intepretations other than those intended.

Moving from the practical to the theoretical...

Having been denied the downstairs conversation about altruism (while deeply engaged by the upstairs one on meme-ing making) I find myself still talking w/ you guys below, linking what you (evidently) said w/ what I was musing about above....

It was the early 19th century founder of sociology, Auguste Comte (1798 -1857) who coined the word "altruism." What's interesting me @ the moment is Comte's investment in "positivism" (briefly: the argument that the logical truth of a proposition must be grounded in its accordance with the material world, rather than referring, finally, to theological or metaphysical claims). For obvious reasons, positivists favored the scientific method. Now, the "illumination" that struck me today was that there may be/probably is an obvious connection between the social activity that is science (gathering as many stories as possible, from as wide a variety of sources as are available, and comparing them), the study of society that is sociology, and the coining of the word "altruism"--which implies a judgment on a self that does not aim for (but may actually harbor an inclination contrary to) the common good. So:...

Where'd that contrary self come from? From whence did it arise? Were there no such selves before...?

Name: Maureen England (
Date: 02/25/2005 17:41
Link to this Comment: 13227

I was thinking more about what someone said in class on Wednesday about our "Capialist" background affecting our desire to categorize different levels of Altruism. Indeed, when you think about it, why do we feel the need to categorize and label and separate things into separate groups? Why is there this need to define Altruism and label certain acts as Altruistic and others as not? As far as I'm concerned, if some act helps another then it is a worthy act, with no need to belittle it by giving an example of a much more selfless act. Likewise, if we are talking about animal acts that "humans give a human behavior to" such as a Dolphin holding another sick Dolphin up to the surface to help it breathe, is this act any less worthy than a human saving a drowning human? Whether you believe the dolphin had a conscious intent and brain behavior to decide to safe the other dolphin (as I do) or whether you think it's simply an algorithmic and consciousless act, is the act any less benificial to the dolphin in need? I feel like so much of our confusion in class discussion comes from trying to assign a specific definition to something. I'm guilty of the same thing because sometimes it seems as though if you can clearly and logically define what you're talking about, it will be easier for others to believe your idea. However, I believe it is in the emotion of the act, and in the act itself that the true value lies, and not in the definition of the act or in the comparison of the act to other acts.

In addition, I love this story and wanted to share:

adjusting the lens
Name: Anne Dalke (
Date: 02/25/2005 22:18
Link to this Comment: 13231

Cherríe Moraga spoke @ BMC on Friday afternoon. In her talk, I heard, obliquely, a running commentary on our discussions, here, about the role of the unconscious, of the academy, of individual free will in making sense of the world:

last call?
Name: Paul Grobstein (
Date: 02/26/2005 17:15
Link to this Comment: 13240

We're wrapping up Dennett this week, moving on to literature after spring break. Its a good time for thinking back across where we've been, seeing what we think we've got to go where we're going next. Anything particular we should try and nail down this coming week before moving on?

Resolution and the end of story telling
Name: Carolyn (
Date: 02/26/2005 21:32
Link to this Comment: 13244

Anne, what do you mean when you wrote that the biggest illusion of academic discourse is that conflict is resolvable? What would that statement imply about hope? That hope is futile, this it is an illusion (or perhaps delusion) as well? I don't know if I can agree with that. That being said, a lack of resolution ties into story telling. Can stories be told without resolution? If it is possible, wouldn't listening/reading/perceiving the story create resolution. Interpreting and making sense of a story would seem to impose resolution on it (a reflection back on the lives of the perceiver). I don't think a story is really a 'story' unless you get something out of it and I would call this 'lesson' a 'resolution'. The lesson doesn't have to be (and I would argue, *can't*) be the same every time you hear a story; I think that resolutions are fluid and 'malleable' theories. On the other hand, I think a lack of resolution poses another interesting question. Is it possible to achieve a total resolution? One that can't be built off of (an ultimate crane that, perhaps, becomes a sky hook)? Would that be the 'perfect' story? Can that ever happen? And if it did, would it lead to the end of all conflict? And if there was no more conflict, would that be the end to story telling?

Loose Ends
Name: Liz Paterek (
Date: 02/27/2005 08:47
Link to this Comment: 13248

I'm still having the biggest problem with whether or not altruism is altruism if it is done altruistically. Also we keep asuming that animals only work on a subconsicous level, but I dissected ion a sheep brain in 11th grade and with the exception that the "thinking portion" of the brain was smaller than that of a human everything was there. So while I'll grant that the frog has likely little or no consicousness I cannot do the same for other mammals until I know more about their brains. Perhaps that are not as capable of consicous thought as we are, but they may be still be capable of some. In any event, I was wondering if an event is subconsious, then aren't we simply imposing conscious thought on the algorithm of the unconsicous. Then isn't the act of the ant working simply on algorithm also the same. It is likely an evolved response that we see something in trouble that relates to something we care about (this can be other things besides humans) and we go in to rescue it. I was also wondering whether humans have to imbue things with human qualties in order to care about them. While I feel that dogs can think consciously, I don't think that it is the same way that humans do. Yet we constantly see people either take animals and make them human-like or put humans on a completely higher plane of existance. To me, it would seem that both are far from accurate and I wonder why it's done.
I found the discussion that capitalism had greatly influenced how we view altruism interesting. I remeber my history class discussing the building of socialist societies and how they worked in Europe where there had formerly been monarchies, however, they attempted it in America and the society they build collapsed. They cited the capitalist upbringing. I wish I remembered more details of it. In our society everything that we give to others hurts us or at least that's how it is viewed. Therefor, we tend to relate altruism with sacrifice and I find that fasicinating although I don't have much more input for that topic.

Dennett's altruism
Name: Becky Hahn (
Date: 02/27/2005 10:20
Link to this Comment: 13249

I'm having trouble coming to terms with the source of altruism as Dennett describes it. What I got out of it was that Dennett argues that altruism evolved biologically when "society" began and we realized that by helping others we can help ourselves (improve our own situation, pass on our genes, etc). Which makes it sound like altruism is just a different kind ethical egoism. I do think that altruism, if one can even talk about it as one unified concept, developed over time. But I see it more in cultural terms than biological ones, so I guess it's a kind of meme (maybe this is what Dennett's saying and I'm just confused). I'm not looking for a skyhook, or at least I don't think so, but I can't agree with Dennett's biological explanation.

I also don't see where other organisms--the wasps, those amoebas--fit in with this. Can non-humans really be altruistic? And did altruism originate the same way for them? Is their "altruism" innate while human altruism has to be taught? Or is it innate for us as well?

Name: ()
Date: 02/27/2005 13:04
Link to this Comment: 13252

Dennett and Machines
Name: Austin (
Date: 02/27/2005 13:17
Link to this Comment: 13253

I was really interested in the chapter "The Emporer's New Mind and Other Fables." It's first of all, incredible to think about what machines can do these days. The fact that they can win chess and be programmed to do just about anything is so interesting and amazing to me. I also really enjoyed the small debate concerning mathematicians minds and whether they were machines or more than machines. Also, discussing whether minds were skyhooks or cranes was also really intriguing.

As for tying up loose ends, I can't think of anything of the top of my head that needs to be discussed...although a brief refresher new hurt anyone. I really enjoyed Dennett and look forward to the wrap-up discussions of him this week.

Name: Nada Ali (
Date: 02/27/2005 13:50
Link to this Comment: 13256

As I continue to read Dennet, I seem to be getting less interested. Universal Acid was a fascinating concept but its implication in the form of memes made me uncomfortable. He wasnt able to keep my attention at that point. This made me think, did I like Dennett bcause he sounded good or was it because I actually liked the idea of universal acid. The application of universal acid didnt appeal to me and hence what was it that I liked about universal acid. Was it the beautiful prose and flavor with which he wrote or did the idea really strike something in me... THOUGHTS

Dennett III
Name: Kelsey Smith (
Date: 02/27/2005 16:00
Link to this Comment: 13261

I thought that it was interesting that Dennett included Rawls concept of the "veil of ignorance." In theory, it seems to be a good idea: remove oneself from one's current life and think about society as a place that could ultimately be "fair" for everyone, no matter what skills--or ultimately, profession--a given person has. In reality though, it is not without problems, especially in the United States where hard work (and achievement) are inherent values. Therefore, I find it difficult to see how any person could remove him- or herself from this way of thinking.

Algorithms and morality
Name: Anjali Vaidya (
Date: 02/27/2005 16:11
Link to this Comment: 13262

I was a bit lost by the chapter on artificial intelligence... I couldn't quite wrap my mind around what Dennett said about algorithms being able to have results that they weren't designed for. It made sense the first time he talked about it, but then he stretched the argument out to the point where I couldn't tell if what he was saying was valid anymore.

I had a thought when he was talking about how Penrose believes that the natural selection of algorithms couldn't give rise to the complexity of the human brain (on page 447). What if what is selected for is just the ability to develop new algorithms? People don't start out with mathematical abilities, and so on- they start out with the ability to learn math and language and the rest, and with maybe a basic framework to fit new knowledge into. The rest is taught, and so it wouldn't really be under the domain of natural selection...

The chapter on morality was very interesting as well, except again it was hard to keep track of the points he was trying to make since he goes off on so many tangents. The bit about the Hutterites was fascinating. I find it amazing that such a society has managed to survive so long- and that it's even grown. And when he started comparing them to bee colonies it made me think of the book Brave New World... Very very different society but there's the same feeling that the individual does not matter so long as the whole is happy. And it's interesting to think if such a society is a desirable one- if peace and harmony and happiness are worth it if you've lost all free will and individuality and creativity... I guess the answer depends on the person.

Anyway, one last thing, really briefly: about the discussion last week about the origin of life (if it's plausible that random molecules bumping together could ultimately form cells)- there's an experiment that was done in the 1950s (I think) that I hadn't realized might not be common knowledge. I think it might clear up a little confusion if I mention it quickly. Basically, a man named Miller took a bunch of compounds that were probably floating around 3.5 billion years ago- methane, ammonia, hydrogen, water- and isolated them for a while, providing a source of energy (an electric current). When he examined the mixture again he found that organic compounds had formed- including amino acids (the basic units of proteins). And granted it's a long way from there to living cells, organic compounds are still a major step.

the algorithm chapter
Name: Ghazal Zekavat (
Date: 02/27/2005 16:58
Link to this Comment: 13263

I was excited to see Dennett's chapter on AI and how Kurt Godel's theory supports or works against the theory. Dennet seems to conlude that Godel's theory doesn't get in the way of AI. I don't know if I'm missing something, but I found it difficult to get a strong sense of how Dennet used Godel's theory to make the case for AI. In this week's New Yorker (Feb 28th ed.) there was actually an article about Kurt Godel and Albert Einstein called "Time Bandits: What were Einstein and Godel talking about?" Einstein and Godel would often take walks together in Princeton and the article speculates some of the subject matter discussed. A lot of really interesting information is revealed about Godel in the article, for example, he had an irrational fear of being poisoned by refrigerator gasses and was afraid to go out when other "distinguished mathematicians" were in town for fear that they would try to kill him. ANYWAY, getting back on track, the article ends with a discussion of how Einstein and Godel arrived at their theories on a timeless universe. A William Blake poet is quoted as saying, "I see the Past, Present and Future, existing all at once/ Before me." Well, THIS reminded me of the Library of Babel. In effect, Godel and Einstein argue that the entire universe is a library of Babel. Does this make any sense?

One thing I feel like I have to say about Dennet: he uses WAY too many metaphors. At times, I think he's really clever, and at other times, I find his flowery writing to get in the way of what he's saying. Some thoughts.... More to come!

ps- I need to learn how to insert umlauts!

Name: Lauren Z (
Date: 02/27/2005 17:32
Link to this Comment: 13264

First of all, please forgive the tardiness of my posting; I was incorrect in my assumption that Plenary would be over by now. Anyway, I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but I have gotten extremely lost. How does Artificial Intelligence relate to Evolution? Perhaps if I understood this, I would have a prayer of understanding Godel's Theorem. But right now I do not.

Wrapping Up
Name: Laine Edwards (
Date: 02/27/2005 17:33
Link to this Comment: 13266

As I have been reading Dennett, especially in these later chapters about theorems and computers, I find myself asking "so what?" after almost every paragraph. My doubtful questioning is only exacerbated by the fact that Dennett himself leads the reader into questioning his writing ("I hope you want to join me in retorting: So what?" p469). Although I think this tactic is often effective in addressing the doubts of the reader, for me it just reinforced my disbelief and irritation with Dennett. For so long I have thought of evolution as a strictly scientific concept and I am finding it very difficult to bring in other disciplines, like Philosophy, to think about evolution.
That said, however, something I am finding interesting in Dennett is the way he discusses culture in regards to evolution. I latched onto Skinner's idea of "survival of the culture" as the highest goal of humanity because it made sense to me the first time I read it. I don't know about survival of culture being the upmost goal, but as I was thinking about it I came up with the word "preservation". What about the idea of preservation of culture? Again, it may not be the top goal of humanity, but I'd say we all put a concerted effort into it. Any thoughts?

britt's thoughts on anne's ideas from cherrie moraga's lecture
Name: Britt Fremstad (
Date: 02/27/2005 18:23
Link to this Comment: 13268

I, for one, would like to hear more about Cherrie Moraga's speech last Friday that Anne mentioned in adjusting the lens

The second bulliton claiming that "we know the answer to the question we are asking" seems incredible / (ly crazy). I ask a lot of questions which I do not know the answers to (i.e. How do computers work? Why is the sea salty?)... If what she says is correct then wouldn't we have to hold all possible memes in our heads from the beginning? I just can't buy this idea in the form it was written; I'd like to know what else she had to say about it.

Next, if parenthood is what teaches us about altruism then altruism is very much socially constructed. No significant biological change is undergone (at least not by men, methinks)... oooh, unless some biological change does occur in women but not so much in men which would help to explain why some animals eat their kin.

Also, this idea that conflict is not resolvable intrigues me. What interests me even more is Carolyn's post (Resolution and the end of story telling). Basically, that if a resolution (to a story) were achieved, would that be the end of story telling? Or are there so incredibly many conflicts that such a thing is impossible?

reevaluating dennett...
Name: Iva (
Date: 02/27/2005 18:48
Link to this Comment: 13270

As I started reading Dennett in the beginning I was truly fascinated with what he was saying and how he was expressing his assertions... over the course of the reading however he started to make some points that I didn't really relate to the issue he was discussing (or at least what I thought it was). Right now I was reading about Hobbes and Nietzsche and I was so upset because I felt like he was abusing their ideas and inverting them in a way they were not meant to go. What upsets me even more is that I don't really see the point he is trying to make with these references: Hobbes never meant to show society as a part of the evolutionary process... he was just trying to explain and justify the absolute monarchy as a system of social hierarchy... (Right?)

Furthermore he uses those ideas without actually stating them... I have a very vague idea about Hobbes and even worse about Nietzsche... and I feel like he uses my (the reader) ignorance to make his point sounder...

Anyway I have done a reevaluation of my attitude about Dennett's writing and right now I am being very critical about all of the arguments he opens up...

Name: Eleanor (
Date: 02/27/2005 18:51
Link to this Comment: 13271

I too thought that plenary would end earlier than it did (before five o'clock), I apologize that it has taken me so long to get to the posting after plenary.
I wonder also how AI relates to evolution. I believe I understand Godel's theorem (there are truths that a human can understand but cannot prove using an algorithm), but I do not understand how arguments with this theorem relate to evolution. I have found myself wondering what all Dennett's arguments amount to and why I am not seeing evolution as a "universal acid".

Name: Haley Bruggemann (
Date: 02/27/2005 19:35
Link to this Comment: 13272

I found finishing Dennett to be quite a task. Most of it did not interest me as much as the first part had, though I found a few instances where I was able to follow along, understand, and really think about what he was trying to say or prove. Some of the time, I was confused, and I found that where Dennett's metaphors were really very helpful in the first part of the book, they simply got in the way of my understanding in the third part. The strangest of these was the space pirate Rumpelstiltskin on page 449, which kind of jarred my thinking. I did, however, like the end of Chapter 15, where Dennett discussed individual style, and I also enjoyed the chapter on morality. I think the metaphor of Darwin's idea as a universal acid was an important one, and I was glad Dennett returned to that in the end.

Name: Ariel Singer (
Date: 02/27/2005 19:45
Link to this Comment: 13274

Up until this point I have found Dennett to be generally understandable (although not always clear), but I really struggled with the AI chapter. I found the discussion of Godel's theory at the beginning to be "highly convoluted and bristling with details of... mathematics," to quote Dennett's analysis of Penrose. I realize that there are many mathematical theories which are way beyond my understanding, but if an author is going to discuss the implications of a theory in such detail, it would behoove the author to explain a bit about the theory, which I still don't have a good grasp on.

I did like the part on Bach, and how, although he was a genius, he was also lucky to be born at the right time, to the right family, etc. This reminded me of the discussion that we had in our group last Thursday, about the man (I am really sorry, his name has entirely slipped my mind) who is now a billionaire because he was talented at manipulating data, especially when applied to the stock market. But he freely admitted that if he had been born in a different place or time, he probably would never have survived, given his lack of "physical prowess."

The last thing that I wanted to mention was an article that I found on BBC online, in their science section, about relating the story of science to the story of history. John Cisne, a paleontologist at Cornell, has set up a system to take population studies and apply the same theories to learn more about ancient manuscripts and how widespread their use was: "In very simplistic terms, he would take some copies of a manuscript and work out their age range... From that information, he would determine how many manuscripts were probably around at any one time, what their rate of "population growth" was and how often they were destroyed... 'When you look at the age distribution of the manuscripts - how many survived from which century - you can get an idea of the balance between the likelihood of a manuscript being copied - or 'reproducing' - versus the probability of the individual being destroyed - or 'dying'.'" The address is

Intention, intelligence, and Turing tests
Name: Rebekah Baglini (
Date: 02/27/2005 21:38
Link to this Comment: 13277

Attempting to read Dennett's chapter on AI during Plenary proved fruitless--consequently, I haven't yet to finish the book and also really need to go back and reread that AI chapter.

As I read Dennett I'm continuing to struggle with the problems of intentionality and altruism. For both of these concepts, we struggle to draw the line at which behavior can be labeled "intended" or "altruistic": can there be altruism without intent (or perhaps, as we discussed in class last Wed., can there be altruism WITH intent)? Does the robot in Dennett's section titled "Safe Passage into the Future" (p. 422) have intent? If it were a human protecting the frozen body on its journey into the future, would we attribute intent to it? Almost undoubtedly, yes. What's the difference? Are we really just deluding ourselves in thinking/hoping/searching for proof that we're somehow different from and surpass mere machines/animals/complex series of physical laws? This seems to be the question underlying everything.

I've also been thinking about Turing tests. For a long time, I've sort of offhandedly regarded Turing tests as simplistic or archaic or incomplete--in any case, not a truly accurate test for whether or not something is "intelligent". The ability to "fool" a user into not being able to tell whether it's a machine or person seems like such a low standard for something as grand as intelligence, and also seems to depend to much on the user's subjective impressions and not the inherent makeup of the machine. But as I've been thinking about it more, I find that I can't put my finger on what it is that I'm looking for. What else is there about intelligence that Turing's tests don't capture? If I were to create a robot that looked and sounded exactly like me and sent it out into the world to interact with my acquaintances, none of whom discerned any difference, what exactly is it that would make that robot less of an intelligent creature than me?

I'm starting to become more comfortable with the fact that my thinking for this class always generates scores of questions and very, very few convincing answers.

Human Uniqueness
Name: Tonda Shimbo (
Date: 02/27/2005 21:47
Link to this Comment: 13278

It seems that Dennett really wants to prove human uniqueness. What bothered me though was the fact that he claimed that there were many truths that could not be proven. If a truth cannot be proven, what then makes one sure that it is "true." I suppose it is just that I have issues with Dennett's throwing around of the word, just as we all had issues with Mayr doing the same. But the argument that our minds are separate and unique entities from all others on the planet - that humans have something that nothing we create could ever encompass - is a somewhat promising feature, even if he himself frustrates me. At least for now we can't use robots for everything - we still have some use for human contact and intellect.

Name: maria (mscottwi@bmc)
Date: 02/28/2005 00:05
Link to this Comment: 13283

Okay, I know the passage I quoted below is absurdly long, but it's from the Nobel Lecture given by Nadine Gordimer and I thought that parts of it were really interesting and thoughtprovoking for me, especially in terms of what we've been talking about in class.

"In the beginning was the Word.
The Word was with God, signified God's Word, the word that was Creation. But over the centuries of human culture the word has taken on other meanings, secular as well as religious...[and]its most significant transformation occured for me and my kind long ago, when it was first scratched on a stone tablet or traced on papyrus, when it materialized from sound to spectacle, from being heard to being read as a series of signs, and then a script; and travelled through time from parchment to Gutenberg. For this is the genesis story of the writer. It is the story that wrote her or him into being...For we writers are evolved for that task...we spend our lives attempting to interpret through the word the readings we take in the societies, the world of which we are part. It is in this sense, this inextricable, ineffable participation, that writing is always and at once an exploration of self and of the world; of individual and collective being.

Humans, the only self-regarding animals, blessed or cursed with this torturing higher faculty, have always wanted to know why...Since humans became self-regarding they have sought, as well, explanations for the common phenomena of procreation, death, the cycle of seasons, the earth, sea, wind and stars, sun and moon, plenty and disaster. With myth, the writer's ancestors, the oral story-tellers, began to feel out and formulate these mysteries, using the elements of daily life - observable reality - and the faculty of the imagination - the power of projection into the hidden - to make stories."

It was her emphasis on humans as self-regarding animals that drew my attention because she equated it with the point at which humans began to want to know 'why', to tell stories. It is when we are able to 'watch' ourselves, to dissociate our internal experience of being us from our physical experience of being us...I also was interested by her mention of myths as types of stories. I personally think that more thought should be given to making distinctions between types of stories. Between a story as a summary of observations and a story as a myth meant to instruct. Anyway, I hope someone finds that passage as interesting as I did.

Name: Jennifer (
Date: 02/28/2005 00:31
Link to this Comment: 13284

I also apologize for waiting until after plenary to post.

I did begin to lost interest in what Dennett was saying. I'm not sure why, but I did have trouble following it. It didn't seem to be as cohesive as before.

I keep thinking about altruism. I know I usually base my ideas on the subject with the way Neil Campbell of the introductory biology text book defines the term, which is when an organism does work without the benefit of passing on their genetic material. Dennett uses cells of the human body as such an example, though bees and mole rats show similar traits. This definition doesn't bring in the idea of knowledge of whether what they are doing is harmful. Of course, this does bring in animals that are closer to the "pure altruism" since we have animals that will die in order to defend the colony without passing on any genetic material.

Name: Brittany ()
Date: 02/28/2005 01:14
Link to this Comment: 13286

Sorry this posting is so late...
Dennett began to lose me with some of the implications of cultural evolution; he really lost me with the chapter on AI. I mean, his writing and metaphors are still witty and vivid, but I had to increasingly ask myself the question Dennett keeps posing: So What? Additionally, I'm not sure I understand his argument about the production of meaning from meaninglessness with regards to AI. Dennett's language makes me uncomfortable here. When discussing our biological evolution, he vehemently denies the idea of an intelligent Mind that created order out of disorder. But in the chapter on AI, he seems perfectly ok with the idea that AI can have a "creator" and yet at the same time be a byproduct of some "other" R and D design. Aren't these "creations" essentially two different things? Not because both were created for a specific purpose---they weren't---but because one was created by random chance and the other put specifically together?

Something else which bugs me: at the very end of "Safe Passage to the Future," Dennett flippantly remarks that "this meme (the impossibility of AI) can be extinguished." Memes extinguished? Is this *possible?* If a "meme" is unused does that make it extinct, or only dormant? In genetics, if a specific gene isn't used for awhile, QWERTY generally ensures that it can't be pulled out of the attic and re-made, so I guess that counts as "extinction." But I think memes function differently... one disproving of any idea doesn't make it extinct. If Truth itself is a cultural meme, and we've established that in Science there Is No Truth, how can *any* idea be conclusively disproven? Or proven, for that matter? How can a meme go "extinct"?

Altruism, a "dialectic," free will, and emotion
Name: Kate Shiner (
Date: 02/28/2005 01:44
Link to this Comment: 13287

I find it amazing how Anne's last post seems to gel everything I have been thinking about since our discussion of altruism downstairs on Thursday. However, I cannot quite get a handle on what it all means. I too would like to hear more about Cherríe Moraga's perspective. I am having so many ideas that are challenging concepts I once took for granted as truth, and I have the feeling that they are all somehow connected. Here are some of the questions I am asking myself, as muddled as my thoughts at the moment:

Why must there be SUCH a distinction between self and other? I agree with Annie that in many cases the benefit or detriment to self and other resulting from any specific action may be impossible to pin down- it does seem a false dualism. If there was no hard and fast distinction between self and other, would altruism be the norm and selfishness an anomaly, and not the other way around? Would the concepts themselves lose their meaning? Is nature fundamentally one way or the other or do we see animals and genes as "selfish" simply from our own skewed perspective?
It is obvious to me that human selfishness does exist. It seems somehow related that (in Cherrie Moraga's perspective, and my own intuition) that there must be some kind of "dialectic" or dualism (of the Hegelian type) for thought (and life?) to evolve but YET altruism seems to occur when this line is blurred and one extends one's concept of self to encompass others.

I have also been questioning my traditional ideas of logic/purpose/conscious thought. Maureen wrote, "I believe it is in the emotion of the act, and in the act itself that the true value lies." This comment definitely struck a cord with me. In class we pondered that an action may not be considered truly altruistic if one did not think logically about the consequences first, if one simply acted on emotion. Yet altruism seems to be all about emotion! This made me reconsider whether animals can be "truly" altruistic. A mother bear who risks her life for her cubs may be "selfish" in working to preserve her genes, but does she not feel the same emotions of love and protection that we do? Cherrie Moraga seems to feel that parenthood is what teaches us to be altruistic, what enables humans to become revolutionaries! Perhaps we do not need logical thought to be "truly" altruistic, and we do not need a logical goal in mind (like the dot on the screen) to have purpose or even emotion. What does it even mean that something is "JUST an algorithm"? This implies no purpose in design? How so?

I feel in some way actions speak for themselves, and that we as humans want to deny nature by separating ourselves from "others" (be they animals or other humans) and deny our common identity. I think this may be productive to some extent, but we should realize it may not be the only way to see the world.

Name: Kate Shiner (
Date: 02/28/2005 01:49
Link to this Comment: 13288

I just want to clarify that when I said "purpose in design" in the last post I think I actually meant something more like...intrinsic purpose, purpose the organism gives itself by creating its own design, however arrived at (ie algorithmically or by trial and error).

Name: Maja (
Date: 02/28/2005 02:15
Link to this Comment: 13289

To expand more on what I was alluding to earlier in the week...

Compared to all other animals, human behavior is influenced by culture to a much greater extent, and is partial to conscious beliefs and desires. Furthermore, altruism is at the core of most religions and even other secular moral philosophies. Every major religion and most philosophies have independently come to the conclusion that the best way to live life is to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

It is possible, that over time, human altruism has progressed into a rewarding behavior almost completely independent of its original biological motive. For example, pleasurable sex, at its biological core was maintained because individuals that enjoyed engaging in such behavior had more offspring. Today, however, human pleasurable sex has come to represent many different concepts that go beyond the biological basis of procreation; such as sharing of intimacy, expression of love, mutual reassurance, and antidote against loneliness.

From the hue of different characteristics found in the human compass of altruism, it is clear that society plays a critical role in shaping ones altruistic inclinations. On the other hand, since even insects such as ants, which are said to be incapable of conscious thought, exhibit altruistic behavior, I am lead to believe that there is some sort of barren biological basis for such actions, which is refined through human nurture.

Name: Maja (
Date: 02/28/2005 02:20
Link to this Comment: 13290

And one more thing that I thought of at the end of class on Wednesday. Here is a true-story scenario that may be a little less controversial than the US Atomic Bomb example brought up in class, but perhaps similar in the point that is being made. When the Tsunami swept away countless lives over winter break, I saw a news report where they were interviewing survivors. This one woman was caught in the drowning waters with two children, one in each hand (an 8 yr old and a 5 yr old). It quickly became apparent to her that unless she let go of one of her children none of them would have a chance at survival, and so she had to decide which child to let go of in order to save the other. Would you call that altruism?

Name: alexandra mnuskin (
Date: 02/28/2005 07:43
Link to this Comment: 13291

I've been thinking a lot about the unconscious and its role in human altruism. In class we talked about whether or not there is any such thing as a "true altruism"-doing something for someone else even at a risk to yourself, in spite of that risk perhaps. I do believe that there may be such a thing as "true" altruism-but that this true altruism can exist only in those creatures that possess the story-telling ability. True altruism, when a person jumps into a burning house to save someone is not a result of a thinking and reasoning process. It seems to me that it is an impulse, and impulse that results from out being able to create a story out of something that hasn't really happened yet. Prof. Grobstein mentioned how when we dream, when we are in a state of unconsciousness, our neocortex is still just as active, creating stories out of nothing. Perhaps that is what really goes on when we do things that are seem unreasonable, at great cost to ourselves is that we are in fact able to imagine what might happen if we do not intervene. When you see a flaming think of the people trapped inside and you jump in to rescue them-even though this may not be a logical or reasonable thing to do.

Name: Nada Ali (
Date: 02/28/2005 16:05
Link to this Comment: 13296

In todays class we discussed the lag in communication between the bipartide nervous system. The neocortex was presented as though it was the medium through which we interpreted our world and created stories for what we experienced through the rest of the nervous system. The neocortex then made sense of it and made a story that it "liked." I couldnt help but question my reality. Is there reality. If interpretation by the neocortex is subject to internal experiences that are relayed by a nervous system that does not communicate as well with the neocortex it feels as though the whole notion of ones own reality is skewed by our "NEOCORTEX." I feel as though my "CPU" control my very being. Yes that obvious that my brain is the organ that allows me to be what I am but I cant help but feel like Im a puppet. I suppose this story is also an interpretation by my neocortex after the rest of my nervous system has communicated the information/emotion/knowledge/vision from class. I feel like im in the matrix.

Another interesting connection I made with what was being discussed about the bipartide nervous system was the role of chemicals and neurotransmitters in our brain. Antonio Damasio in his book "Descartes Error" makes the point that the chemicals in our brain allow us to feel emotion. Hence essentially I am becoming more prone to thinking about purpose as a fading concept. If what humans feel is a result of chemical reactions then how can we have purpose. Phineus Gage had a structural injury to his brain and that changed his temperament then perhaps who we are is simply a result of evolution, chemicals and brain structure. Perhaps thats why serial killers have different reactions to disturbing pictures.

I suppose im rambling and thinking and creating stories of my own but I find that Im questioning my understanding and in turn coming up with more stories that satisfy me at this point. I wonder how Im going to feel at the end of this class and as my life progresses and thinks. Are we simply robots made from randomness and A BIG HUGE MISTAKE!! I feel like a child of chance mesmerized by the conception that Im not all that special or great. Not to say I thought that to begin with but without purpose arent we just products of randomness and why were Dennet and Mayr so PURPOSEFUL when in the end there is no purpose. Then again the fact that there is no purpose was their purpose. Hence purpose is probably a human invention and we just keep creating stories because thats what the neocortex does.

Im not sad because I get the feeling I may sound that way. But thats just the snow!! I think its refreshing. Dennett however is becoming mundane!

Name: Arshiya Bose (
Date: 02/28/2005 20:27
Link to this Comment: 13312

I still want to know...

1. Are humans, as storytellers evolutionary more advanced, not complex, than otters or model-makers?

2. Are our emotions, responsibilities, meaning that we find for ourselves simply the outcome of simple physical processes? Is meaning our alternate story? Is meaning our model?

3. Or do we indeed have a neocortex that creates stories that are not the result of chemistry? Is what our brain is doing something unique?

4. If our story-telling is indeed just a model, or an illusion, how are model-makers different from story-tellers?

Please! Someone ! Enlighten me !

Monday's Discussion
Name: L.T.(lt)
Date: 03/01/2005 22:56
Link to this Comment: 13335

One idea that struck me from the topics that came up on Monday was the idea of the creation of words and the creation of ideas. Unless I misunderstood, Professor Grobstein seemed to be saying that we can't conceive ideas until we have words for them. "We didn't have the idea of time until we had the word time" is the example I remember. This seemed strange to me - is it that we need language to understand abstract ideas? Or do we gain the ability to understand abstract ideas at the same time as language? Naming ideas doesn't seem so far from what storytellers are supposedly doing. Altruism, in the pure form that people argue doesn't exist, is a word that sums up a story. Which came first, the story or the word?

The Library...
Name: Brittany (
Date: 03/02/2005 19:53
Link to this Comment: 13353

So class ended today with a discussion of Dennett's library-obsession... I wanted to make some other points but we ran out of time. So here they go.
I'm pretty solidly with the group that accepts Dennett's idea of a library in which all possible genetic genotypes (and phenotypes?) are catalogued. In some sense, this view *does* acquiese to the idea that everything that ever was, is, and shall be is "already there" in the library in some sense. However, I don't think this necessarily restricts our choices or our explorations as evolving creatures in any way. When Dennett posits that things are "already there," I don't think he implies that they're extant. It's rather the possibility of their being extant that is catalogued in the library. The things themselves don't exist, so in that sense we are still "creating" ourselves as we follow our evolutionary journeys. But when we "create" say, a new species, that species has its corresponding "possibility blueprint" catalogued somewhere in the infinite library of Mendel.

And this correspondence doesn't make the creative process any less significant. The library contains blueprints/possibilities of all *end forms*, not the evolutionary processes required to reach them. So there are an infinite number of ways to arrive at (for example) a goldfish. The library can't predict how or how long goldfish-building will take; it simply has the goldfish blueprint somewhere shelved away.

As to the difficulty of the catalogue system itself... if we look at the library as a conventional human library, it doesn't work. There are too many infinite possibilities, all minutely different: how would we place them next to eachother? How would we order them? Now I'm really bad with metaphysics, but I got the impression from Dennett (or maybe I read Dennett and then completely BS'd this defense, or stole it from my cache of cheesy 60's sci-fi---feel free to call me on it if it's the latter) that his libarary's "cataloguing system" doesn't really exist in the conventional sense. It's only our journeys through the library's infinite possibilities which string together the extant forms its blueprints record.
The "order" of the library is where the random, creative quality of evolution intersects with the concept of "everything's already there." Before time (and us, as we evolve within time) winds a connecting thread through the "blueprints" that turn into reality, the library is one big dark muddle of possibilities. Its "order" only becomes visible in the past tense. But because every blueprint is equally possible right up until it occurs in reality (theoretically---no accounting for QWERTY here), all blueprints/possibilities in a sense are filed right next to each other. To steal a concept from science-fiction, every point in the universe is simultaneously next to every other point, all the time. To apply this to the library, every blueprint/possibility is next to every other blueprint/possibility all the time; it's only the passage of time and reality through this infinite space that creates distance between two points (because these blueprints have actually become reality, there is now a measurable distance between two extant forms).

Ack... like I said, I'm horrible with explaining things like this. So sorry! Does any of this make any sense at all?

some thoughts about class today
Name: Anjali Vaidya (
Date: 03/02/2005 21:34
Link to this Comment: 13363

I've been thinking about the discussion in class today about whether if meanings only exist in our heads it counts as real meaning (I hope that made sense). Carolyn had said that she found that idea depressing... And I've been trying to figure out why it doesn't really depress me. If concepts like truth and justice and altruism are all human constructs, do they have meaning? Real meaning independent of us, their creators? Not really, I guess.

I think it's easy to develop a nihilistic attitude, if we believe that we are the products of algorithms and concepts that we hold dear like morality and altruism and the soul are entirely human constructs, with no real meaning outside our own heads. But at the same time... I think in a way it doesn't matter that these things have no real meaning. There is no way for us to see the universe objectively- there is no way for us to find the "real" truth, to decide for certain what purpose our lives may fulfill. There is no way to see beyond the very subjective reality that our senses relay to us. And I think the most useful way to deal with that is just to briefly acknowledge the facts and move on. It doesn't have to be depressing. A flower is no less beautiful because beauty is a human construct. Our lives have no less meaning because meaning is a human construct. And altruism may be entirely self-serving at heart ("ethical egoism", as Becky put it), but that doesn't make a person feel any less good when someone else is kind to them.

I don't know. Accepting and then ignoring the fact that nothing we do may have "real meaning" could count as being wilfully blind, but it's certainly the more helpful outlook in the long run.

more on meaning
Name: Ghazal Zekavat (
Date: 03/03/2005 20:08
Link to this Comment: 13395

I've also been thinking about the role of "meaning" in our lives. Like Anjali, I don't find it depressing that "meaning" is constructed by human beings, and that it may not exist on its own. The more I think about this, though, the more it confuses me. Clearly, we place certain values on things due to our social upbringing (and because it's "human nature?") but why would we do that? Why do we pick certain works of writing, for example, to be meaninful, and not others? What makes a life meaningful? As humans, do we think that birds or fish or insects lead meaningful lives? I'm pretty convinced that birds, fish, insects, etc don't "think" about their lives in that way, so who is right? If organisms don't place meaning on their lives, why would we? Is it because we are seeing a bigger picture (or at least trying to?)? Did placing meaning on meaningless things evolve because it was beneficial to us? Another thing- meaning is so subjective. Things mean different things to different people... what's with that? Okay so we all have different brains, and we all think differently... well, why is that, I wonder? As a member of society, I would say that it's great that things turned out this way, but I still don't understand why or how it happend. If meaning doesn't exist, it almost seems TOO convenient to me the way things turned out.

"science has [not] nothing to do with..ordinary life"
Name: Anne Dalke (
Date: 03/03/2005 22:04
Link to this Comment: 13398

Jessica called my attention, during her conference y'day, to a (sort of cheesey) NYTimes Science Times article "The Next Einstein? Applicants Welcome" (3/1/05). What caught my eye (among lotsa stuff that didn't) were several observations:

I've found a lot of gladness, over the past seven weeks, in exploring w/ you guys the many ways in which science and the humanities reciprocally inform one another, the many ways in which science clearly has everything to do w/ our ordinary lives. I very much look forward to more of the same after break....

When I'll bring back one question in particular which remains for me from the first more "science-y" half of the course: how do "signals 'down here' become evident 'up there' as emotions" (=how/why does the unconscious reception of sensory inputs get transformed into conscious apprehension of feeling?)

And then of course I've got lotsa questions upcoming about the evolution of stories...what stories, for instance, do you think Middlesex arise from (and why)? What revisions does it make in those stories? What new stories does it give rise to? How helpful, in short, is the concept of evolution in thinking about/beyond this text? About/beyond literature more generally?

Ending Dennet, and good ridance
Name: Maureen England (
Date: 03/04/2005 13:55
Link to this Comment: 13415

Finishing Dennet, I must say, comes with a sigh of relief! I thought the rest of the book was hard enough, but the last chapter really upset me. Even though subtitled, "In praise of Biodiversity" the last chapter seems more like a rant on Dennet's part. He outwardly attacks the practice of religion for example, claiming that religion is just practiced for its tradition and not for the true belief in the ideas. Dennet also bluntly says "Until was can proved an environment for all people in which fanaticism doesn't make sense, we can expect more and more of it. But we don't have to accept it, and we don't have to respect it." (page 517). Dennet is lauching a personal tirade in this chapter against belief systems that don't match his own and simply thinks that "We" the reader are on his side, as if he's natually right. I must say that while I could accept the rest of the book as his opinion and his studies, this last chapter takes away any respect I had for him and I feel personally attacked by having to read it.

Dennet and AI
Name: Ghazal Zekavat (
Date: 03/04/2005 17:47
Link to this Comment: 13423

I have to see, the better I understood what Dennett was saying, the less I liked him. His AI chapter, which I wrote my web paper on was titled, "The Emperor's New Mind, and Other Fables." I think this is in direct response Penrose' Book, "The Emperorn's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics." Dennett spends the enitre chapter bashing Penrose' use of Godel's theorem to suggest the fallacy in AI. Furthermore, Dennett doesn't really explain Godel's theory or Penrose' theory well and only offers his interpretation on why those theories are wrong. He's so frustrating! If Penrose were to write a counter attack to Dennett's chapter, I would recommend he title it "Library of BABBLE." Anyway, I actually enjoyed Dennett because he made me think a lot about what he was saying, but I am glad to be moving on!

Name: Iva Yonova (
Date: 03/08/2005 17:40
Link to this Comment: 13441

Something that really caught my attention in class on Wednesday was the point about how personality and thinking cannot be subjected under any algorithm what so ever; that a man/woman's actions are pure matter of choice... I don't mean to be close-minded like Dennett but an idea has been troubling me: aren't we, as personalities and individuals, a product of our environment? In some very convoluted way our life story and the environment in which we have been living could be dictating our actions... so all of our thoughts and actions could be just products of a very complex algorithm based on our experience.... isn't psychology/psychiatry doing exactly that? - figuring how a person's background has led him to become who he/she is....
I understand how bothering this sounds but we might be just products of a very complex algorithm we haven't quite found yet...

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