Philosophy: Darwin, The Triumph of an Idea

Philosophy: Darwin, The Triumph of an Idea February 17, 2006

I am nearly midway through Daniel Dennett’s book, “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” now, and preparing to present the next chapter for class on Tuesday. Dennett is what I might call an evangelical Darwinian. Speaking of the work of biologist, Manfred Eigen, Dennett proclaims:

The research of Eigen and hundreds of others has definite practical applications for all of us. It is fitting to observe, then, that this important work is an instance of Darwinism triumphant, reductionism triumphant, mechanism triumphant, materialism triumphant. It is also, however, the farthest thing from greedy reductionism. It is a breathtaking cascade of levels upon levels upon levels, with new principles of explanation, new phenomena appearing at each level, forever revealing that the fond hope of explaining “everything” at some one lower level is misguided. (p.195)

Dennett is so excited over the apparent fact that everything can seemingly be folded into the great algorithm of

  1. random variation,
  2. natural selection, &
  3. continuation.

He even turns the process back on Darwin: showing a series of prior ideas and theorists (Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, et al.) and the proper environmental conditions which just happened to pick this one peculiar random man, Charles Darwin, to ride along on a peculiar voyage halfway across the world. Then still it has been necessary that Darwin’s idea spawn offspring, some of which have their own offspring surviving to this day (a la Dennett), and some of which have died off (the Social Darwinists of Herbert Spencer).

Darwinism has also had to borrow bits and pieces from other ideas, such as Mendelian genetics. In any case, just like the descent of man, the descent of Darwin’s Idea has its share of twists and turns. There is no ‘essence’ of Darwinianism, nor is there an exact beginning, as the idea of evolution had already been around. Dennett follows this logic to say that it doesn’t really matter that Darwin even existed! Someone would have (randomly) put the pieces together to form a similar hypothesis (which would have likewise been naturally selected) sooner or later and we would be using that man’s (or woman’s) name before our ‘ism’ suffix (continuation).

Of course that might be a little disheartening for those who would like to say, ‘but we’re special… and so is Darwin.’ The consolation in Dennett is found in the second half of the quote above. While everything can be explained as a progression of higher and higher levels of complexity and organization, each new level requires its own kind of explanation.

Concerning something like the consciousness, Dennett simply wants to say that it has developed from a 3.5 billion year process of ever-increasing complexity, very slowly, step by step, to us. He wants us to abandon our fantasies that somehow consciousness came down from the clouds to join the muck and goo of organic life, or that consciousness came first and created the muck and goo, or even the bare physical particles of the universe. But that is not to say that there really is no consciousness, or that it is fully explained by recourse to the process (lower levels) that led to it.

You can still say ‘we’re special’ but it’s only by a matter of degrees – we’re just a few degrees more conscious than our ancestors, and maybe they were just a few degrees more conscious than orangutans and chimpanzees. Each of us as individuals are special too, if only because we’re here and it didn’t have to be that way. If your great-grandpa (or any one of the very long list of your ancestors) had drown as a child or died in a war, you wouldn’t be here. Now isn’t that amazing! We don’t need an outside, fatherly creator to endow us with specialness.

Perhaps we don’t need reincarnation either.

(see also this article from the Economist – “The story of man” – Modern Darwinism paints a more flattering portrait of humanity than traditionalists might suppose…)

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