Nick Klagge's Reviews > From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds

From Bacteria to Bach and Back by Daniel C. Dennett
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really liked it

This is one of those books that I really liked, wanted to write a great review for, and consequently put off writing the review for way too long! I am remedying that now, not by writing a great review, but by writing a review.

Dennett's purpose in the book is to sketch an outline of how consciousness as humans experience it could have grown out of a purely mechanistic process. This has been a focus of much of his work for decades, but he says in this book that he wants to attempt a summation, and that recent research can provide further support for things he has talked about in the past.

The book is certainly too rich for me to summarize adequately here, but I will mention a few things. First, the concept of "memes" plays a huge role, and if you think memes are cat pictures, UR DOIN IT RONG. This was the first extended serious treatment of memetic theory that I've read, and I felt pretty amenable to it. More or less the idea is that there are patterns of thought that can reproduce themselves in other minds via communication, that there is some type of mutation that goes on when such a pattern is translated from one mind to another, and that these patterns have differential success in durably reproducing themselves in other minds. These patterns, or memes, can be a really wide range of things, from songs that get stuck in your head to big concepts like agriculture. The three characteristics I listed above are the same ones that Darwin describes regarding genes, and themselves are sufficient to produce natural selection effects. It's a little harder to think about memes than genes, but I'd be hard-pressed to argue against the premises and conclusion that memes reproduce and are subject to natural selection just like genes.

Second, I'll mention the three "strange inversions" that Dennett kind of structures the book around. These are conceptual breakthroughs that he sees as paving the way for a theory of the evolution of minds. First is Darwin's own inversion, which says that you can have "reasons without reasoners." The concept of natural selection allows us to say that a certain type of bird has a long beak "so that" it can drink nectar from a certain flower, without ascribing that reasoning to any conscious actor. Second is Turing's inversion, which says that you can have "competence without comprehension." A Turing machine shows us that it is possible for an entity to do arithmetic (and much more complex tasks!) while demonstrably just following a deterministic set of instructions. Finally, and maybe most interestingly, is Hume's inversion. I don't think Dennett gave a catchy description of this one like the other two. But this inversion is the understanding that many things that we feel we "perceive in the outside world" are really only internal to us, including the perception of causation, sexiness, cuteness, sweetness, etc.

Anyway, if you want to get a deeper sense of the argument, read the book! Last, I want to mention a few interesting quotes from the end, where Dennett is talking about the implications of "thinking" technology, particularly modern advancements such as deep learning.

"The real danger, I think, is not that machines more intelligent than we are will usurp our role as captains of our destinies, but that we will over-estimate the comprehension of our latest thinking tools, prematurely ceding authority to them far beyond their competence." (402)

"Systems that deliberately conceal their shortcuts and gaps of incompetence should be deemed fraudulent, and their creators should go to jail for the crime of creating or using an artificial intelligence that impersonates a human being." (403) - This is astonishingly close to the commandment of the Butlerian Jihad in Dune, "Thou shalt not create a machine in the likeness of a human mind"!
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Reading Progress

May 7, 2017 – Started Reading
May 7, 2017 – Shelved
May 20, 2017 – Finished Reading

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