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Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (Penguin Science) Paperback – 26 Sep 1996


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Product details

  • Paperback: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; New Ed edition (26 Sept. 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 014016734X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140167344
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 2.5 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (71 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 44,266 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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In Consciousness Explained, Daniel C Dennett insists on the importance of considering consciousness from the evolutionary point of view. Darwin's Dangerous Idea elaborates upon his theory of the evolution of consciousness, but also compendiously presents his views on the nature and significance of evolutionary thinking. The eponymous dangerous idea is, of course, the idea of evolution by natural selection, which Dennett esteems as "the single best idea anyone has ever had." When the theory is applied to Homo sapiens, however, the result threatens to be "the universal acid" eating through everything of value and leaving nothing in its place. One of Dennett's prime concerns is to argue that evolutionary explanations can demystify without destroying.

Darwin's Dangerous Idea is divided into three parts. In the first part, "Starting in the Middle", Dennett places the idea of evolution by natural selection in its historical context, then explains it in his characteristically vivacious style. In the second part, "Darwinian Thinking in Biology", he critically examines challenges to Darwin's idea. Connoisseurs of intellectual controversy will especially relish chapter 10 ("Bully for Brontosaurus"), in which Stephen Jay Gould is castigated for misleadingly presenting his views as radical and anti-Darwinian. Finally, in the third part, Dennett discusses the implications of Darwinian thinking for "Mind, Meaning, Mathematics, and Morality." Among the luminaries targeted here are Noam Chomsky and Roger Penrose. Throughout, Dennett manages to synthesise information from many different fields into one unified view of life and its meaning. Writing with style and wit, he again shows that he merits his reputation as one of the best popularisers of science. --Glenn Branch

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Carl Sagan "The Washington Post Book World" A breath of fresh air. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

80 of 83 people found the following review helpful By J. E. Robinson on 3 Oct. 2005
Format: Paperback
There have been many comments on this book in the ten years since it was first published. I think what Carl Sagan said about the book is perhaps the most accurate: "a breath of fresh air". Contrary to many other people I thought the book by Dennett was easy to read, very well written, very straightforward, and not some sort of heavy philosophical discussion. He has lots of examples and many references to real science. It even contains pictures and many schematics. The basic point of the book is that despite any rumour or suggestions to the contrary, scientific, social, religious, or otherwise, the basic tenants of Darwin's original ideas for the evolution of the species remains sound, and it is the only viable theory of evolution. If anything, it has solidified its standing as a durable and accurate theory of evolution.
Darwin's theory as we understand it should start with a definition, and here I quote a definition: " The process in nature by which, according to Darwin's theory of evolution, only the organisms best adapted to their environment tend to survive and transmit their genetic characteristics in increasing numbers to succeeding generations while those less adapted tend to be eliminated." Dennett points out in his discussions that many non-evolution scientists, that is, those in other fields of research, do not really understand this simple idea. They still seem unwilling to accept the theory, although adaptive change has been proven in the scientific literature through extensive DNA and protein studies - see for example a more recent article 7 years after the Dennett book: February 28, 2002, Nature, authors Nick Smith and Dr Adam Eyre-Walker. They measure (quantitatively) the adaptive changes.
There are a number of sub-themes here and one being Gould's theories of evolution.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on 5 Oct. 2001
Format: Paperback
Dennett states his thesis unequivocally: "If I were to give an award for the single best idea
anyone ever had, I'd give it to Darwin . . ." Newton, Einstein, Galileo and Copernicus all
helped topple humanity from its self created egocentric pedestal. None of these, however,
had the universal impact of Darwin's idea of natural selection through change over time. The
mechanism of biological evolution, as Dennett points out, has spread to every science from
cosmology to atomic physics in a single century. This achievement demands we understand
the Idea fully. Dennett has provided us with inspiration to perform that study, offering us
excellent guidelines to assist in the task. This is an excellent and valuable book.
Dennett coins or adopts a few "catch phrases" to help us understand how the Idea works. In
presenting Darwin's thesis in a historical context, Dennett offers the term "universal acid,"
showing how "change over time" toppled firmly held beliefs. "Universal acid" has been
seized upon by numerous critics in the media arguing that Darwin's Idea eroded beliefs
without providing replacements. Dennett counters this charge, declaring that rigorously
investigated natural events will lead to the establishment of new, realistic values. He accepts
the comforting value of faith, but will not concede its insistence on possession of truth. Truth
is achieved by investigative effort, not granted by divine revelation.
He utilizes a familiar term, "algorithm" in explaining how the evolutionary process works
through the language of DNA. To Dennett, an algorithm is a "stupid piece of information"
since it does nothing itself.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By G. Imroth on 14 Oct. 2009
Format: Paperback
The basic theme of 'Darwin's Dangerous Idea' is that the biological world can be explained as the product of a mindless, mechanical and completely naturalistic algorithmic process of Darwinian evolution (page 60).

Evolution up-ends a 'traditional structure of Western thought', which Dennett calls the Cosmic Pyramid. The Cosmic Pyramid puts Mind above Design, which is above Order, then comes Chaos and finally Nothing, implying a top-down process of design or creation. Darwinism is a scheme in which Chaos, Order, Design and then Mind are built by a bottom-up mechanism. What things originate from (presumably not 'Nothing') is unknown, however, and not a concern of Darwinism, which (as Dennett says) begins in the middle.

The design that is seen in the world and traditionally attributed to God can be explained by the gradual accumulation of algorithmic processes. A short-cut to good design in nature occurs by means of 'cranes' (clever self-lifting gear), never by 'sky-hooks' (magical or supernatural lifting gear). Some cranes are good tricks, others are forced moves in design space (where forced moves are like unavoidable chess plays).

Dennett brilliantly elaborates these ideas and applies them to almost every area of philosophy, including cosmology, psychology, culture (the memes nonsense made believable), ethics, politics and religion. For psychology, for example, Dennett makes his famous argument that real intentionality, as possessed by people, evolves from the 'as if' intentionality of simpler organisms and genes, which can be loosely described as 'wanting' to be copied into the next generation. In cosmology, Dennett discusses Darwinian alternatives to the mystic nonsense of the Anthropic Principle.
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