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Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life

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In a book that is both groundbreaking and accessible, Daniel C. Dennett, whom Chet Raymo of The Boston Globe calls "one of the most provocative thinkers on the planet," focuses his unerringly logical mind on the theory of natural selection, showing how Darwin's great idea transforms and illuminates our traditional view of humanity's place in the universe. Dennett vividly describes the theory itself and then extends Darwin's vision with impeccable arguments to their often surprising conclusions, challenging the views of some of the most famous scientists of our day.

588 pages, Paperback

First published May 10, 1995

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About the author

Daniel C. Dennett

62 books2,712 followers
Daniel Clement Dennett III is a prominent philosopher whose research centers on philosophy of mind, science, and biology, particularly as they relate to evolutionary biology and cognitive science. He is the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. Dennett is a noted atheist, avid sailor, and advocate of the Brights movement.

Dennett received his B.A. in philosophy from Harvard University in 1963, where he was a student of W.V.O. Quine. In 1965, he received his D.Phil. from Christ Church, Oxford, where he studied under the ordinary language philosopher Gilbert Ryle.

Dennett gave the John Locke lectures at the University of Oxford in 1983, the Gavin David Young Lectures at Adelaide, Australia, in 1985, and the Tanner Lecture at Michigan in 1986, among many others. In 2001 he was awarded the Jean Nicod Prize, giving the Jean Nicod Lectures in Paris. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Science. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1987. He was the co-founder (1985) and co-director of the Curricular Software Studio at Tufts University, and has helped to design museum exhibits on computers for the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Science in Boston, and the Computer Museum in Boston. He is a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 344 reviews
Profile Image for Greg.
1,117 reviews1,879 followers
January 7, 2010
1. Roughly 47% of Americans believe the theories in this book to be complete and utter bullshit at best, and at worst the work of the devil. That same 47 percent of the population that doesn’t believe in evolution also do not believe in the Sumerians or Dinosaurs. There is nothing that can be said to make them see that they could possibly be wrong about the world being created roughly 6,500 years ago, but that is fine because I believe the world was actually created 10 seconds ago, and it was created all for me, with everyone and everything in it, including all my memories supplied just to give me and my own personal universe a history, which of course it is lacking since it has only existed for about a minute and a half now. Sorry that you don’t exist as much more than a ‘thing’ (and not even really that, most of you are just kind of there as non-entities I will never actually encounter, but even if I do you are still only in my head, so you’re not even things. But if you are a non-thing reading this feel free to click that you like this review) only here as color for my universe.

2. If you don’t believe you’re uneducated about the theory of evolution, this book may not be the best place to start. I think Dennett doesn’t mean for this to be an introduction to the topic, maybe a road map, where he points out some interesting spots along the way, and gives you ample opportunities to read and learn more for yourself in his 35 page bibliography, but if you are half-ignorant, like me, then you are going to be taking a lot of what he says at face value, for the time being at least. Instead of being a primer into the theory, the book is an expansive overview of the controversies and ramifications of the evolution on a wide variety of topics. Unless one is super-duper smart in all different fields, there is probably going to be quite a lot that you’ll end up just nodding along to, accepting Dennett’s reading of a particular issue and his answers to those issues. At times I probably got too accepting and just nodded along with my critical goggles put safely away since I had no idea how to judge the merits of the arguments being presented.

3. Three is a special number. It’s the dialectic, it’s the dad, the kid and the not so friendly ghost, it’s got lots of other meanings that my head knows but which it doesn’t want to give up right now. It’s also the number of thinkers that I’ve always imagined, and I’m guessing most people who care about things like this would agree with, that are considered the Heavy-Weights of revolutionary thinkers that shaped modernity. That would be Darwin, Marx and Freud. Can this be considered pretty un-controversial? Good. Or not, but at least nod along with me and pretend you agree.

4. Lets leave Daniel Dennett here and move across the pond, so to speak, to the universe of Continental philosophy. What Dennett is putting forth in this book is that Darwin’s dangerous idea isn’t just about decentering the universe and man’s place in it. It’s not just about showing that creationism is the intellectual equivalent of believing that the world is flat or that the sun rotates around the Earth. Dennett calls the idea of evolution a universal acid that is so strong it corrodes everything it touches, or maybe not corrodes, but changes at least. Using a different metaphor, and one more apt to Continental philosophy, Darwin’s idea is a hammer that smashes right through most of Western Philosophy. Nietzsche wanted to philosophize with a hammer, well by Dennett’s description Darwin is the tool that can do that. Plato’s theory of ideal forms? Smash. Aristotelian means and his four basic causes? Smash. Cartesian duality? Smash. John Locke? Smash! Why? This might not be totally accurate, but I could argue it and in a manner of thinking it’s true, Darwin removed metaphysics and teleology and was able to give the ground work for a scientifically provable explanation for the world.

Removing the science part, isn’t this kind of what the most contemporary strands of Continental thought were trying to do? Isn’t saying philosophy is dead, the author has died, God is dead, etc., isn’t deconstructing everything in sight, travesing plateaus, seeing the world as a simulacra, declaring reality to have been left behind (add any other wacky French theory here), aren’t these all ways of saying the entire tradition of Western Philosophy (or thought) is problematic? Funny thing is, I don’t ever remember coming across a Darwinian theorist in those intellectual waters. Which is kind of strange. Here is something that is being worked on with results, facts and figures and numbers and graphs and all of those things scientists come up with that can be used to show an entirely non-phantom description of the universe, the mind, creation, etc., and as far as I’m aware it is never used. Looking at the number people willing to use Lacan as an expert with his idea that the absent is actually more present than what is present and the present is actually not there at all (seriously did this actually help anyone who went to get psychiatric help? I find it to be great fun to think in these lines, but outside of coming up with neat explanations for texts where does this go? What kind of proof can there be? It’s fun sophistry.), or overextending Marx to cover anything under the sun and stick it with a teleology, or to step back one level of influence, the continued predominance of Hegelian thinking, which where it’s true it’s kind of like saying so what, and where it’s wrong it’s embarrassing the degree that it’s wrong by.

I’m a little embarrassed that I never thought of the ramifications that Dennett pointed out until now. Not that I ever really studied Darwin at all, or any science for that matter, but just the general ideas that are opened up by his explanation of evolution aren’t a big intellectual leap to see how it ultimately undermines metaphysics, and can remove the boogeymen of the soul and god from the intelligent thoughts about causality.

4. Four is the tetrad. The most perfect number to Pythagoras, 1+2+3+4=10. I’m just throwing that in because I have nothing more. This review I thought would be more coherent. I thought I’d have something productive to say. I thought my thoughts on continental philosophy would be more substantial, but they aren’t. I’ll have to keep working on them and maybe share them in a review where they will be even more out of place.
Profile Image for John Wiswell.
Author 41 books428 followers
October 1, 2007
This was by far the most annoying book I read in college. It isn't just wordy; it's bloated with needless
tangents and almost incomprehensibly dense passages. I watched an entire college science class misunderstand this for two excruciating weeks of debate and left thoroughly disappointed in Dennett's prose. It's simply too long and stuffy for its own good; and worse, for a 600-page monolith, it insists on simplifying things to "God did it by miracle" or "natural selection did it mindlessly." This is a typical A/B argument that a lot of popular scientists and religious types subscribe to because they only have to insult one opponent to win, and no other school of thought is given credibility. And oh, how he insults his opposition. From his crane and sky hook analogies, to all his snide remarks about religion, to his adopting Darwin's means for arguments about physics and psychology (things Darwinians might enjoy, but that Darwin himself would have bawked at), his conclusions are neither philosophically sound nor scientifically useful. Dawkins handles memes better, Gould handles evolution better, and pretty much anything on the physics and spirituality bookshelves at the store does those domains better credit.
Profile Image for Morgan Blackledge.
621 reviews2,033 followers
November 26, 2014
For those of you Game of Thrones fans, Daniel Dennett is like the George R. R. Martin of Darwin. 

For those of you Darwin fans, George R. R. Martin is like the Daniel Dennett of Dungeons & Dragons.

For those of you Dungeons & Dragons fans, you're probably already familiar with both George R. R. Martin and Daniel Dennett, so I guess you guys (probably not girls, but maybe) are the intended audience of this review. 

Before going any further did you ever notice how Daniel Dennett and George R. R. Martin look like twins separated at birth. Seriously, Google image search them and tell me I'm wrong.

In fact, if you slapped a Greek fisherman's hat and a black Members Only jacket on Daniel Dennett, I doubt I could tell those two apart.

I guess the easiest way to tell them apart would be their bank accounts. My guess is Martin is quite a bit more wealthy than Dennett.

In America you can make a whole heck of a lot more money writing about fantasy then dispelling fantasy (oh snap). 

In case you didn't catch my drift, Daniel Dennett has made a career out of writing about Darwin. And to further elaborate, Charles Darwins dangerous idea is like the acid that melts crystal unicorns and rainbows down into a brownish green, smelly ectoplasm with bacteria in it. 

Admittedly less fun in many ways than an ancient world of wizardry, craft and jealous, wrathful deities and demigods (Dungeons & Dragons reference). But really fucking clarifying and useful if you want to understand the way the world actually is.

Dennett and Martin are more similar than different though. Both have clearly spent too much time sitting at a desk (that was a fat joke), both are amazingly long winded (in the good way), and both are masterful at bringing their epically vast worlds to life via cool literary devices. 

Dennett would refer to such devices as "intuition pumps" i.e. cool functional metaphors (like sky hooks and universal acid) that make difficult ideas suddenly accessible, and thereby more useful and generative.


This book is long.


Dangalang is it long..............

I'm really enjoying it and still, it feels too long, almost as if it needed a.. uhhh.....how do you say.....editor?

At least one whole (normal) book length section of this epically long book is a ridiculously lengthy and through defenestration (that's right, defenestration, look it up, I'm pretty sure this is a legit alt usage of the word) of Steven J. Gould's theory's e.g. Spandrals of San Marcos and the Panglossian Paradigm. And it's about as warm and fuzzy as a Red Wedding.

Oh my god. I'm so glad I'm not on Dennetts hit list. That man can talk ya ta death. Do not mess with Dan Dennett. He will pillory you with iron verbiage and pitch you out the moon door.

Dennett tosses a lot of ideas around in this book, but the central idea of evolution as a repeating, simple algorithm is probably the one that will really stick with me in the end. It's a cool way of framing evolution via natural selection. A mindless, iterative process that somehow eventually spins minds out of frisky dirt. If you're opposing that dangerous idea, than I got news for ya. Winter is coming.
Profile Image for Robert Schneider.
Author 1 book264 followers
September 10, 2009
As I neared the end of my second month of slogging through this book, I asked myself, "What keeps you going? Each night you read a page or two, re-read half of those, and then start again the next night."

The answer is that this book is so dense and well written that it deserves to be savored and thought about. For an evolutionary neophyte like myself (both in evolutionary time, and in terms of how much I know about the concept of evolution) the book has some fairly difficult and complex sections.

But Dennett overcomes the jargon and is able to distill the ideas to their essence in every chapter. I feel VERY good about my understanding of the idea now.

Particularly useful was the concept of a library with every volume ever written, AND every variation on those volumes. Start with Moby Dick as an example. This library contains every version of that book ever written, edited or published. So what? Well, the library also contains a version of the book that begins, "Call me Jshmael." There are millions of versions of Moby Dick with subtle variations, some which have little or no effect on the readability; others are a complete mess that no one would or could read.

A quick translation to the idea of genes, and we have what Dennett referred to as the "Mendelian Library." All of the various ways our billions of genes can be arranged, and the results of these arrangements.

This library concept illuminates the vastness of "design space" available for genetics to operate in. This metaphor carries much of the book, and has been hugely useful in helping increase my understanding of the ideas behind Darwinian AND post-Darwinian evolution (remember, Darwin didn't know about genes.)

The only reason I gave this a 4 instead of a five is just because of the sheer burden of having to force myself through the work.
Profile Image for Zanna.
676 reviews967 followers
February 28, 2014
Philosopher Dan Dennett argues that the theory of natural selection is a 'universal acid', burning through our basic ideas about science and beyond, leaving a completely changed intellectual landscape. The revelation that mind did not design life inverts the traditional Christian-derived pyramid. Dennett shows that evolution needs 'no skyhooks' - no supernatural powers - and instead produced us and our artifacts and ideas using 'cranes', artefacts and strategies that accelerate development (the image derives from the fact that a small crane can be used to erect a larger one). He explains and answers the critiques of opponents to orthodox neo-Darwinism, and points out pitfalls on both sides, for example distinguishing sensible (in fact, tautological) reductionism from 'greedy reductionism' (one culprit in the latter category is behaviourism in psychology: Skinnerians who believe that all behaviour is a function of operant conditioning. The inadequacy of such theories has been demonstrated by, for instance, the research of linguists like Chomsky)

Dennett points out that natural selection is an algorithmic process, and carefully examines the implications for science and philosophy, including ethics. An interesting consequence is support for the possibility of artificial intelligence (since consciousness is not magic, but arises from biological phenomena: the mind is in the brain). He develops the idea of 'memes' as mental analogues of genes; symbiotes evolved to live in minds, making persons of the humans they infest and hyper-accelerating life's trajectory through design-space.

"The prize is, for the first time, a stable system of explanation that does not go round in circles or spiral off in an infinite regress of mysteries. Some people would prefer an infinite regress of mysteries, apparently, but in this day and age the cost is prohibitive: you have to get yourself deceived. You can either deceive yourself or let others do the dirty work, but there is no intellectually defensible way of rebuilding the mighty barriers to comprehension that Darwin smashed."
Profile Image for Joshua Nomen-Mutatio.
333 reviews892 followers
December 7, 2010
"If you can approach the world's complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things."
— Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell

"Is this Tree of Life* a God one could worship? Pray to? Fear? Probably not. But it did make the ivy twine and the sky so blue, so perhaps the song I love tells a truth after all. The Tree of Life is neither perfect nor infinite in space or time, but it is actual, and if it is not Anselm's "Being greater than which nothing can be conceived," it is surely a being that is greater than anything any of us will ever conceive of in detail worthy of its detail. Is something sacred? Yes, say I with Nietzsche. I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence. This world is sacred."
— Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea

*The latest Terrence Malick film looks amazing. Just saw the preview earlier today at the theater. It put me in a similar state of mind as this book does. It's too bad that I can't find an official trailer online yet. When I do find one I'll probably make it known somehow.
Profile Image for Keyhan Mosavvar.
56 reviews60 followers
December 4, 2021
آقای دنیل دنت میاد نظریه تکامل یا فرگشت داروین رو اثبات می کنه و بسط میده و همچنین به پیامد هاش در جایگاه های مختلف میپردازه مثل فرهنگ ، مهندسی ، هنر و خیلی چیزهای دیگه . در کل قصد نویسنده از نوشتن کتاب، دادن نگاه تکاملی به مخاطب در هر چیزی هست. این دیدگاه کمک میکنه به پشت پرده و تاریخچه خیلی چیزا پی ببریم و اون دید که یه معجزه رخ داده که یک چیزخاص اتفاق افتاده خارج شیم
تلاش نویسنده بر اینکه بگه تکامل عوارض جانبی ناشی از تغییرات هست . و برای فهم بهتر خواننده از موضوع مثال های زیادی میزنه .
مثلا به تغییرات زبان می پردازه که اول یک مبدا و ریشه ی مشترک داشتن ولی با هر ذره تغییر جزیی و در بازه زمانی طولانی باعث تشکیل زبان های جدید زیادی شده.
در کل کتاب جالبی بود و دید آدم رو به بسیاری از چیزهای اطرافمون باز می کنه.

Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,650 followers
December 15, 2017
This book felt like brain yoga. It was such a delight to follow the logic-based arguments Dennett constructs and the analogies he uses and the way he picks apart other people's bad arguments. Darwin's dangerous idea, he says, is like a universal acid that corrodes all our faiths and institutions. In fighting this, we have mischaracterized it, feared it, or run away from it. Dennett confronts it head on and explains what that means for us and for our culture. It's not overly scientific. It's well-reasoned, well-written, and a delight to read.
Profile Image for Clif.
450 reviews123 followers
May 30, 2018
Imagine running through an orchard grabbing fruit as you go. After you finish, you look back and decide to take a very large bag and stroll slowly through again, carrying a ladder picking the best fruit you can find.

Darwin's Dangerous Idea is the first book I have ever read twice in a row. Dennett is a master of clear thinking and builds his case through logic, but he surveys a very large territory and I felt upon finishing my first read, that I hadn't grasped all he had to say. The second read was as enjoyable but more satisfying than the first, but rather than carrying a ladder, I pulled out a highlighter.

I've always been impressed with Charles Darwin and believe that his thoughts on evolution are as significant to the advance of knowledge as the discovery of how to make fire was to the advance of civilization.

For the roughly 6 million years since our branch of the tree of life separated from the ancestors we have in common with chimps and bonobos, humanity has lived in ignorance of the reality of how the world around us has come to be.

Because of the unbearable anxiety that went with ignorance, it was mandatory that something be thought up to explain things and religions fit the bill. The profound difference for those who have lived within the last 150 years, is that mythology can be put aside for truth. As far as we know, we, on our little planet, exhibit for the first time the universe coming to understand itself. For all the number of earth-like planets that may be out there, we don't have a shred of evidence to date that we are not all alone.

Life must be rare, if not unique to Earth. The dangerous idea that Dennett writes about is that insensate matter has, through blind unguided experimentation under a system of order (chemistry and physics) with the aid of inconceivable amounts of time, started life itself and then developed to the incredible variety of it we see today through natural selection.

Dennett calls this idea a universal acid because it puts holes in all of the tales we have told ourselves about a god above and our place apart from other life on earth. It's comforting to believe that there is a benevolent creator and overseer, that there is a "me" that is not entirely held within the physical body, yet nobody has ever come up with even the slightest evidence that our fond desires have anything to do with the reality of our being.

With great patience and a delightful sense of humor, Dennett methodically dismantles every attempt to falsify Darwin's idea. Even many scientists, he tells us, are reluctant to part with the idea of a "skyhook", an external, inexplicable agent that has somehow intervened to bring us to our condition of mind-directedness independent of natural selection.

We are definitely special for having language and consciousness and culture. Dennett is not belittling mankind, far from it! He sees that we are not the helpless automatons that animals are - going through the motions of life without the ability to benefit from the rich store of information that we humans have built up and readily communicate to each other. We are the masters of our fate because we have the world of ideas that transcends our genetic recipe. There is no cause for despair, but there is cause to be wary of those who would like to return to the comforts of mythology.

Darwin's Dangerous Idea is not a quick and easy read, but that is because it is so carefully crafted for the mind to follow. You cannot be distracted since an idea will be carried through several pages and you need to follow the logic. The language is not technical, Dennett peppers the text with everyday phrases. He carefully defines his terms but you have to note those definitions because the terms will pop up again and again.

Most enjoyable are his mind experiments, his constructions made for the reader to better understand a point. What if you were going to go under suspended animation for centuries and had to design a robot to get you through that period of time? What characteristics would you give it to best assure your survival? Genes have made their way through endless iterations of trial and error and what have they come up with that is successful? Look around you to see countless examples in every form of life we know, then look in the mirror.

What genes cannot do is produce change anywhere near that of the environment. This has been shown repeatedly with great die-offs that reduced the number of species up to 90% in episodes over the history of earth. In our time, humanity in its effect on the environment has created a hurdle that genetic change is helpless to address. The problem for all life is us and our own actions will determine its fate.

If you want revelation, put the bible aside and get a copy of this book. You won't need a shaman or a priest to interpret for you, all you need is to pay attention to find out how even what seem to be the most impenetrable mysteries become clear when viewed with the dangerous idea of Darwin's that turns out to be illuminating (and subject to proof) in so many areas.

Maybe I'll read it a third time. :) UPDATE 2018, I did.
Profile Image for Gendou.
597 reviews271 followers
November 16, 2013
This is my first Dennett book, and he had me worried in the first chapter with all that philosophy. Then I recognized something from my study of of effective field theory:

"Here, then, is Darwin's dangerous idea: the algorithmic level is the level that best accounts for the speed of the antelope, the wing of the eagle, the shape of the orchid, the diversity of species, and the other occasions for wonder in the world of nature."

He also refers to Darwin's dangerous idea as a universal acid, able to cut through tough problems, and as the first theory based on an algorithm.

Dennett goes on to talk about evolution, so-called controversies around Darwin's theory of natural selection, the origin of life, the modern synthesis, genetics, etc. This survey was mostly stuff I'd heard before, however, because Dawkins.

Then Dennett started popping caps in metaphorical asses. This is my favorite part. He laid the smack down on Noam Chomsky for denying the evolution of language. He tore up Gould's spandrels and exaptations. He explains why Searle is wrong about artificial intelligence. He debunked Penrose's theory of consciousness arising from micro-tubules.

He also criticizes sociobiology for comically and habitually underestimating human intelligence in the face of forced moves (situations with an obvious, best solution).

Dennett uses two particularly clever thought experiments in this book. One has to do with black boxes and a green, red or yellow light. I won't spoil this, but will say it has to do with Gödel's proof, cryptography, and the philosophy of mind.

The second thought experiment is that of people who want to cold sleep until a distant future date. They design an autonomous robot programmed to keep them save, and move their frozen coffin around to keep it safe and powered. This turns on its head the relationship between genes and the brain. What is the brain but a machine built by genes to aid in their survival? Fun stuff.
Profile Image for May.
298 reviews12 followers
March 17, 2023

Just wow.

I need some time to process this magnificently well-written and highly persuasive piece of philosophy.

Review to come (someday).
Profile Image for Craig Williams.
445 reviews10 followers
June 23, 2010
I hate to abandon a book before I finish it, but some books just force my hand in the matter. I picked up this book because I had always heard of Daniel Dennett, as he is one of the infamous "Four Horsemen of Atheism" (also including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchins). I wanted to read some of his work, saw this book, and thought the title provocative.

However, the more I read, the more of a chore it became just to pick up the book. I don't want to give the wrong impression - this is probably not a bad book by any means! Perhaps if I were more intelligent, at least in the area of evolutionary biology and genetics, I'd find every word of this book fascinating beyond measure. Since I am not, I found the book a gigantic bore, with no hope of being anything more than that. I find that, ultimately, Dennett lacks the ability to connect with readers who are not as academic as he, such as writers like Dawkins or Sagan can. Reading this, I had that same feeling of hopelessness I would get when taking a really difficult class.

So, with heavy heart, much reluctance, and a huge migraine, I gave up at about Chapter Six. Maybe if I get more well versed in this subject by a writer that is better able to simplify it, I'll re-approach this book... or maybe I'll just sell the damn thing back to work.
Profile Image for Boudewijn.
680 reviews92 followers
September 29, 2022
The repercussions of Darwinian theory is that, whether or not Darwin's theories are overturned or thought to have been overturned, there is no going back from the 'dangerous' idea that design (purpose or what something is for) might not need a designer. To this effect, Daniel Dennett demonstrates this by various means, introducing the concept of skyhooks and cranes, whereby skyhooks are regarded (falsely) as the reasoning behind life itself, that doesn't need an explanation: in other words, a miralce, or a devine being. Cranes on the other hand, are based upon physical science and, although wonderfull in their design, still are based on natural concepts.

Daniel Dennett might be one of the few philosophers that understands Darwinism and therefore can set it in light of this background. This might be interesting for some readers, but unfortunately this book didn't met my expectations - his 'crusade' against Stephen Jay Gould's theories was an irritating distraction. Therefore: 2 stars.
Profile Image for AJ.
27 reviews3 followers
March 9, 2007
This book is purely about Darwin's theory of natural selection. IT'S NOT A BIOLOGY TEXT. It's not really about biology at all, but the larger, widely-applicable algorithmic process that happened to push forth original life. It covers a massive span of topics, most rather philosophical, including reactions to Darwinian thought (from Neo-Darwinist scientists, and others), issues in reductionism, possibility, 'evolutions' of meaning, 'evolutions' of morality, and a lot more. It's pretty unbelievable how far these ideas go, and this book expands beyond any one sphere of academia. Please, don't get all cocky on me. Even the Evolutionary Biologists need to read this one.
Profile Image for Bethany.
334 reviews17 followers
August 28, 2015
Interesting beginning, but the philosophizing and repetitiveness takes over. Half of it is refuting other peoples' writings. If you're not already familiar with important philosophical concepts and terminology, and you haven't read Stephen Jay Gould before, I can't really recommend this book. I will say that the idea of skyhooks and cranes is really fantastic, though.
Profile Image for Robb Seaton.
39 reviews89 followers
October 11, 2013
A slog. Dennet's prose is seldom clear, too much time spent on arguing about words. Most of Dennet's digressions (70% of the book) seem designed to signal the author's breadth of learning rather than to promote understanding.
Profile Image for Çağrı Mert Bakırcı.
Author 5 books598 followers
Want to read
September 7, 2020
Kolay bir kitap değil ama evrimsel biyoloji ve felsefesini anlamak isteyen herkesin birden fazla defa okuması gereken çok önemli bir eser. Evrimi bir biyoloji olgusu olmasının ötesinde, gerçek anlamıyla bir doğa yasası olduğunu anlama yolunda önemli bir adım.
Profile Image for DJ.
317 reviews239 followers
November 29, 2008
This book is not "yet another pop-sci book on evolution." It does not set out to convince the reader with a series of well-known arguments that evolution is true. Instead, it assumes you've accepted the idea and explores it as an abstract framework for understanding the world. It is the first and only book I've encountered that takes evolution as a worldview and not just a biological explanation of speciation.

I drew far too many wonderful ideas and frameworks from this book to write a review essay-style, so I'll enumerate the most salient ideas by topic.

-Natural selection may have been the first strong step toward viewing the world by processes and not things.
-Humans ignore gathering pools of evidence until an explanation of the mechanism is proposed. In other words, we seem to value understanding and predictability over evidence.

-Speciation is not the presence of something (read: an essential nature of a species); it is the absence of reproductive bridges between related organisms.
-Discovery and invention are indistinguishable from the framework of possibility spaces. One doesn't invent theories or configurations of matter; one discovers them in design space.

-History is made relevant by the future. This is especially true in evolutionary biology, in which the evolutionary past is unavoidingly coupled to the future.
-Speciation is determined by the future survival of one's ancestors; not by the contemporary actions of a proverbial "Adam" or "Eve."

-Life is a statistical fluctuation of low entropy.
-Life is matter grasping at a rock in the river of increasing entropy.

-Evolution does not process the "best" solutions; it produces "stable" solutions.
-Evolutionary thinking is not the simple application of determining whether or how a trait increases rate of survival. It is the intricate conversation that takes place between concepts such as forced moves, culture, genetics, survival, reproductive prowess, and stability.

-Memes operate under different selection pressures in different groups (i.e. science, fashion) and at different levels of magnification (i.e. individuals, families).
-Commitments can be viewed as stable governments of memes. In others words, a stable collection of memes that support one another.

-Intelligence may be embedded in objects. We invest some intelligence in designing an object to be used by others. A user may, without a manual, recognize the use of the object and gain intelligence through it. Objects then may be seen as vectors of intelligence and sources of inspiration.

Profile Image for Jurij Fedorov.
374 reviews66 followers
December 9, 2015
A philosopher writes about what psychology has to say about the brain and Homo sapiens in 1995. 20 years later this book is outdated. The book itself is written in a boring and dry way. And the final nail in the coffin is the length. 520 pages long, 300 pages too long as he just repeats the same points again and again and uses way too much space to explain simple things.

While I do agree with Dennett on most points he doesn't understand human behavior fully in 1995. Today we know a lot more. We have discovered much, much more inherited behavior and while Dennett does go against the sky hooks in this book he would be even more critical of blank slate and religious explanations of the brain today. Read Moral Animal by Robert Wright instead and a few books on evolution. This one is made obsolete.
Profile Image for Ajith Ashokkumar (WordShaker).
91 reviews12 followers
November 11, 2021
Expected some idea which uncovers the mystery behind the evolution and the very existence of humans and other species on earth. But I got a 600 page essay, where I can't find anything interesting or useful related to evolution.
Profile Image for Dan.
1,135 reviews52 followers
June 12, 2022
Darwin's Dangerous Idea

Quirky and bloviated. More philosophical than scientific. Even though it was published just a quarter century ago, this tome feels very old - there are even many hand drawings of basic evolutionary concepts that a high schooler could have done better. But I guess the message is still conveyed effectively.

I have long been a fan of Charles Darwin so I didn't think I would learn too much new. And yet there are tangents that Dennet goes off on that are quite interesting .

For example there was a chapter on algorithms, "according to Darwin, evolution is an algorithmic process." This chapter was bit of an epiphany for me. Yes algorithms are impersonal but so is evolution.

Or take another chapter where the author considers biology to be an engineering topic. Maybe we humans aren't doing the engineering but many principles are shared between the disciplines. This chapter should not be confused with the topic of intelligent design.

While the author does not have Richard Dawkins' overbearing but orderly and convincing way of teaching about the theory of evolution, he is extremely well read. Here in his magnum opus he pulls us in all kinds of directions, sometimes interesting ones, that aren't necessarily wrong but do not always buttress his conclusions.

4 stars.
Profile Image for Dave.
232 reviews18 followers
August 13, 2011
“Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” by Daniel C. Dennett is one of the better books on Evolution available. Dennett is probably best known as one of The Four Horsemen (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris), i.e. atheists who speak out against the problems that organized religion causes in our society. Of the four, though, Dennett tends to stay away from the blood-boiling criticism in which the others sometimes engage. Instead, Dennett spends his time discussing the state of the science. This book is a very good example of Dennett’s approach as he focuses on the science and the theories, though there are a few exceptions which I will discuss later in this review.

The book has three sections. The first section is titled “Starting in the Middle” in which Dennett discusses where the theory of evolution is today, where it started (including pre-Darwin theories of evolution), and how it has reached its current state. The second section is “Darwinian Thinking in Biology” talks about recent biological theories which claim to move beyond Darwinian Theory and Dennett attempts to bring them all back to either Darwin or the supernatural or “cranes or skyhooks” using Dennett’s terms. The last section is “Mind, Meaning, Mathematics, and Morality” and it looks at some of the more difficult questions, for which Dennett provides plausible scenarios.

The strengths of this book are many. To begin with Dennett creates a set of terms, like his “skyhooks” and “cranes” to facilitate the discussion and make it very easy for the reader to follow. In addition, Dennett builds examples from the start and in some cases takes those examples through a large part of the book and uses them very cleverly to aide in explaining the topic. The writing is clear, the discussion is thorough, and Dennett does not let the discussion to become too technical, though at the same time he provides a bibliography which provides a place to look for more information on any of the specific subtopics that one finds interesting.

There are a couple of things which I didn’t like about the book, the first one being rather small and insignificant. At the top of the second page of the book, and extending to the footnote, Dennett goes out of his way to pick a fight with creationism. Dennett calls “creation science,” ‘a pathetic hodgepodge of pious pseudo-science’ and then in the footnote states ‘I will not devote any space in this book to cataloguing the deep flaws in creationism, or supporting my peremptory condemnation of it. I take that job to have been admirably done by Kitcher 1982, Futuyma 1983, Gilkey 1985, and others.’ I think Dennett would have been well served with a statement that he was not going to talk about “creation science” and left it at that. Instead this comes across as petty name-calling and is beneath the author.

The other issue is that Dennett has the same reaction to any suggestion that there is a mechanism other than natural selection, and those who suggest there is he accuses of looking for “skyhooks” or in other words a supernatural entity. I think that this is a rather big mistake, and it results in Dennett being very critical of some others, including Stephen Jay Gould, but from my reading of Gould he was open to other natural mechanisms, and considered concepts like constraints to be mechanisms. Perhaps Dennett’s interactions with creationists have made him a bit too sensitive in this area, but whatever the cause I consider it a significant weakness in the book.

Overall the book is a very good discussion of the topic, and is suitable for readers who are already familiar with the subject and want to delve deeper, as well as those who know little about it and want to learn about it. While there are a couple of areas that I would rather Dennett had taken a different approach, those are far outweighed by the strengths of Dennett’s writing, and philosophical approach to the discussion of the topic. This book easily rates 4-stars.
Profile Image for Jeremy Lyon.
42 reviews5 followers
May 12, 2008
In this book Dennett makes an authoritative case against the necessity of what he calls "skyhooks" in order to explain life and meaning. Skyhooks are the deus ex machina of science, invented to make the case for human exceptionalism. Dennett's able to show that evolutionary theory can dissolve just about any argument in favor of skyhooks into plain, old-fashioned incrementalism.

The vast majority of the book is devoted to this topic; considerably fewer pages are allocated to describing how morality and meaning can be generated by incrementalism, and I kept feeling there was a lot of hand waving going on in the final chapters. There was no Theory of Meaning clearly enunciated, but in Dennett's defense he wasn't trying to build one. In fact, he claims that no such beast exists, that morality, like life, is a finely gradated set of decisions in which the transition from right to wrong is never clear and only identifiable in retrospect.
Profile Image for Paige McLoughlin.
595 reviews29 followers
September 11, 2021
Dan Dennett, Douglas Hofstadter, Richard Dawkins, Bertrand Russell, Stuart Kaufman were heavy influences on me early on. It has been a long time since I looked at these authors. I probably don't remember specifics but it shaped my outlook as I was reconstructing my mind after becoming a schizophrenic in 1990. They are great guides for someone who wants to reality check after a psychotic breakup. Any facade of sanity I show to the world is reconstructed from doing philosophy with these figures. Darwin's dangerous idea came out in the 1990s and is a good work on this fruitful idea around the diversity of forms winnowed by natural selection It is an awesome algorithm for developing complex forms we see around us. Dennett is a great expositor on this beautiful idea. Good writer and good philosopher.
Profile Image for Ken-ichi.
598 reviews562 followers
January 1, 2014
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 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?).

To quote,
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.

Addendum 1

Of course the most incendiary review I could find was by Gould: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archi....

Dennett replied: http://www.stephenjaygould.org/review...

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.

Addendum 2

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...
Profile Image for Gary  Beauregard Bottomley.
1,009 reviews603 followers
July 22, 2014
This is by far the best book I have read this year. It uses the narrative of Darwin's deceptively simple idea of making complex things from a very simple algorithm. The author beats this thought in to the reader and at the same time covers how the world changed because of that.

The book is really more philosophical than scientific but it's accessible to the non-philosopher like me. He starts by telling the listener the mindset during Darwin's time. Plato's universal forms would lead to absolute categories such as species (either your a donkey or a horse) and Aristotle's importance of essence for the nature of things to be the thing. Darwin had to overcome that kind of thought. Darwin dances around what a species is in his "Origins of Species" because for his theory to work you must realize that there are intermediaries between objects and the thinking at that time would not allow for intermediaries. All of the above, I got from just the first chapter in the book, and you too can be just as entertained as I was!

The author tells me that Locke would say that mind must come from mind, that is God must have created man. Now, I have finally started to understand Locke. Oddly, David Hume, almost had the concept of evolution by natural selection but just couldn't take the next step to get there. (How I love David Hume!, a man a head of his times). Hobbes gave us "just so stories" to explain the creation of society and Leviathan.

The nearly infinite decision space (what he calls the 'library in the tower of Babel') gives false security to believers in Sky Hooks (deus ex machina believers, Gould, Penrose and Chomskey), as opposed to the believers in sky cranes (Darwin's Brilliant Idea).

The author has long sections on Psychology (Skinner is wrong!), and morality (morality is complex!). He even delves into one of my favorite topics, Godol's incompleteness theorem and how Penrose is wrong to say it proves artificial intelligence will never succeed. All the time, the author uses the narrative of Darwin's Brilliant Idea, simple algorithms can lead to amazing results.

A negative review on audible led me to this book. The reviewer said that the first half of the book was about philosophy and how good Dawkins is, and the second half spends most of the time criticizing Gould. I knew I wanted the book after having read that review. (To the reviewers credit, he's not being nasty, but fairly accurate).

I loved this book. It's a rare one which challenges my beliefs, keeps me focused and transcends me to hard to reach places in my mind which makes me really think about my place in the universe and understand it just a tiny bit more. Besides, it's fun to be able act like an intellectual snob while talking in a waffle shop with a stranger and have the person think I'm intellectual heavyweight while knowing I only know that stuff because I just listened to one fine book, and more importantly keeps me from having to listen to his stories about some unimportant job he had thirty years ago!
Profile Image for Dave Peticolas.
1,377 reviews43 followers
November 27, 2019

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.

Profile Image for Steve Van Slyke.
Author 1 book40 followers
June 2, 2012
This should not be anyone's first book about evolution, natural selection or Charles Darwin. Dennett, and this book in particular, was referenced in so many other books I'd read on evolution that I felt I needed to read one of his, but was somewhat surprised to find myself in something so abstract that I occasionally had trouble following him. If you're looking for a book about the nuts and bolts of evolution and natural selection this is not it. On the other hand, for those who are scientists, steeped in the literature of evolution and seeking a more theoretical or philosophical approach, or for those who enjoy reading works of philosophy and wish to enter the realm of evolution through that door then this book would probably be more enjoyable for them than it was for me. Thus my rating reflects my preference for less philosophical, more practical, hard science approaches to the subject of evolution, and not the quality of Dennett's writing or his arguments.
Profile Image for Krishan.
59 reviews17 followers
September 25, 2007
A long and diffucult book, but well worth the effort. Here Dennett explores the implications of natural selection on other areas of philosophy. The material ranges far and wide, from human consciousness, morality, the evolution of theories of evolution, consciousness and morality.

The meat of the book is devastating criticism of attempts by philosophers and scientists to find attributes that are beyond evolutionary analysis. In particular, he does a thorough job of exposing the shortcomings of the theories Stephen Jay Gould, Noam Chomsky, and Roger Penrose, all of whom have attempted to put the human mind beyond the reach of science.

This book is a MUST read for believers in evolution. It shows how the painful philosophical inversion can and must bet taken all the way down, to the brain, morality, and humanity. Reason and meaning come only AFTER life evolves.

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