I picked up this book because I'm an atheist and I wanted to read something by one of the New Atheists, because the notion that anyone would want to cI picked up this book because I'm an atheist and I wanted to read something by one of the New Atheists, because the notion that anyone would want to capitalize "atheist" seemed somewhat anti-atheistic to me (aatheistic?), and Dennett appeared to be the least pig-headed. Somewhat unfortunately for my project, this book has nothing to do with atheism, but fortunately for me in general, it has everything to do with evolution by natural selection and its implications beyond biology, which is a pretty cool consolation prize.
Unfortunately, being a non-philosopher of middling mental capacities, I did not understand, well, a lot of the interesting parts of this book, possibly because I'm not up to the mental task, possibly because the author is unnecessarily prolix (I can't tell; attempts to make arguments without evidence may require prolixity), possibly because the subjects at hand are intrinsically complicated for everyone. For me, the uninteresting parts were the re-explanation of natural selection and its implications in biology, which Dennett does a good job describing and will probably be pretty good for people with little to no grounding in the area. I also found a lot of the philosophical fisticuffs with individual thinkers (Gould, Chomsky, etc.) to be excessively detailed for a lay reader. Isn't that what journals are for?
Anyway, the rest was really cool, even if I didn't grasp it all. Here are some of my take-homes
Evolution implies incremental states for all biological adaptations, including ideas like meaning, self-awareness, the mind, etc.
If you don't believe in the supernatural and you don't believe anything has simply entered the Universe ex nihilo since the Big Bang, there is no better explanation for the existence of life than evolution by natural selection, and since we have no evidence that ideas exist outside of organisms or their creations, we must assume these ideas also evolved from earlier, simpler forms. I'm frankly an unconscious subscriber to Snow's Two Cultures, and this stuff is definitely on the other side of the fence for me, but that stance is largely due to laziness, or perhaps even a subconscious discomfort with the implications: it's hard to see "determination" in the behavior of a bacterium, say, or to think that there's anything like my sense of purpose in the mechanistic actions of an enzyme. As a scientist, or at least a scientifically disposed person, I generally view these concepts as intractable, or entirely relativistic (kind of the same thing in my mind), but Dennett argues that we need to stop thinking about them in essentialist terms (e.g. meaning is meaning: pseudo-meaning is meaningless), because the alternatives all require supernatural explanations that are themselves unsatisfactory (if God gave us free will, where did she get it from?).
Through the microscope of molecular biology, we get to witness the birth of agency, in the first macromolecules that have enough complexity to "do things." This is not a florid agency—echt intentional action, with the representation of reasons, deliberation, reflection, and conscious decision—but it is the only possible ground from which the seeds of intentional action could grow. There is something alien and vaguely repellant about the quasi-agency we discover at this level—all that purposive hustle and bustle, and yet there's nobody home. The molecular machines perform their amazing stunts, obviously exquisitely designed, and just as obviously none the wiser about what they re doing. [...] Love it or hate it, phenomena like this exhibit the heart of the power of the Darwinian idea. An impersonal, unreflective, robotic, mindless little scrap of molecular machinery is the ultimate basis of all the agency, and hence meaning, and hence consciousness, in the universe. (pp. 202-203)
Biology is not like engineering, it is engineering
Dennett argues that engineering, unlike other methods of effecting change, generally involves some information gathering, making something imperfect, assessing that something, and then trying again with a better design. He views evolution, and hence all consequent biological adaptations, as being not just analogous, but exactly the same process, with different degrees of the kind of intentionality we usually ascribe to engineering. An eyeball is not miraculous: it's just version 2.0 billion.
Gould & Lewontin did not disprove adaptation by natural selection
The revelation for me is that anyone even thought they did, or that anyone interpreted their famous 1979 paper, "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme," as an attempt to replace adaption. I read the paper in college and my hazy recollection was that it was more of an introduction to some legitimate alternatives to adaptation as an explanation for biological phenomena that could apply in a small minority of cases, and that evolutionary biologists shouldn't assume that adaptation is always the reason, even if it usually is. That's basically where Dennett ends up in his assessment, but he goes to what seem like extraordinary lengths in doing so, to the point of dismantling G & L's central metaphor (spandrels, apparently, are not necessary if you want to hold up a vaulted ceiling). Just b/c the metaphor was poorly-chosen doesn't invalidate the idea of non-adaptive features forming the substrate for future adaption ("exaptation"). The rest of his Gould-bashing might be legit, but I think this paper got unfairly lambasted. I guess if the way Dennett depicts its legacy in the humanities is accurate, maybe it was necessary.
The interesting stuff I didn't understand concerned what these kinds of intermediary forms of ideas actually looked like, and how memes can have philosophical relevance without any scientific reality, which was sort of the entire last third of the book, I'm afraid.
Good stuff. Looking forward to looking up some reviews.
Kind of nasty stuff, though having just read the book, I feel like Gould misread Dennett, and while Dennett gets overly personal in some of his criticism of Gould (for my tastes, at least), he is not an Darwinian fundamentalist. I never got the sense he was trying to promote adaptation as the complete explanation for all phenomena in nature, just the bits with design.
Have to admit I only knew CP Snow's Two Cultures by reputation, but my sister (denizen of the other culture that she is) pointed out that it's kind of awful, and she's right, pretty classic 50s scientific hubris (not to mention classic homophobia and misogyny). I still think people from the sciences and the humanities have trouble talking to each other. Despite the fact that my sister and I just did. And despite this article on Nabokov's butterfly research: http://nautil.us/issue/8/home/speak-b......more
Been a long time since I got caught up on the state of astrobiology. Maybe this will help. Also, FYI Goodreads, the recommendation system did *not* suBeen a long time since I got caught up on the state of astrobiology. Maybe this will help. Also, FYI Goodreads, the recommendation system did *not* suggest this based on my astrobiology shelf....more
A great little overview of some notable biologists and their discoveries. Carroll tempers his wonder with rigor, succinctly but thoroughly explainingA great little overview of some notable biologists and their discoveries. Carroll tempers his wonder with rigor, succinctly but thoroughly explaining a great deal of science alongside the zany adventures of his heroes, with ample citations in appendices. My only critiques are that it was too brief to be completely satisfying for someone familiar with the science (at least in broad strokes), and the occasional moments of dorkiness (Snakes on Plane reference (p. 145)? Seriously?).
"I did not want to write a book about miserable bastards" (p. xvi)
After being shocked by his first electric eel and left "affected for the rest of the day with a violent pain in the knees, and in almost every joint," Humboldt proceeded to shock himself and his companion again and again to determine how and when the shocks were issued. Awesome. (p. 2)
Andrews was a real naturalist-spy, simultaneously hunting dinosaur bones in Yunnan and filing reports with Naval Intelligence. (p. 127)
Placental and marsupial mammals split before the dinos went extinct! Madness. (p. 138)
I love the story of the Louis Leakey firing shotgun blasts into Lake Victoria so his family could have a few minutes of crocodile-free swim time. (p. 224)...more