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588 pages, Paperback
First published May 10, 1995
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)
A book about the philosophical implications of Darwinism. Written with humor and keen insight, this book has many good references for further reading.
I read this book with great interest because one of its topics -- the effect the theory of evolution has on ideas in non-biological settings like religion and culture -- has fascinated me for some time. Although many people do not find any conflict (or even relationship) between evolution and religion, I have found it difficult to see evolution as neutral on the subject of faith in an absolute deity.
Dennet argues persuasively that evolution is not neutral on the subject of religion, nor is evolution neutral towards a host of other fields. Dennett likens evolution to a 'universal acid' which eats through traditional ideas and beliefs and leaves them transformed, though not always destroyed. Indeed, Dennett claims that meaning itself is best understood as the product of an evolutionary process. Heady stuff!
Because of the broad scope of the book, some subjects are necessarily treated lightly. But the bibliography is extensive and will keep me busy for some time.