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4.0 out of 5 stars tell me why, there are no hooks in the sky, 23 July 2012
This review is from: Darwin's Dangerous Idea - Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Penguin. 1995. (Paperback)
Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection is the most beautiful and captivating idea I have come across in my entire life - much more exciting than my five year old joy at seeing how high I could count or my eight year old adventures in base 12. Until I really grasped the implicatons of the theory sometime in my twenties, biology seemed much like learning ones million times table by rote. But after Darwin biology becomes exciting.

However it is not just biology that is transformed. Under the ancient view our bodies are but clothing - albeit too heavy and cumbersome - for our souls. If this view is true why do people find it so hard to be good and kind to one another - especially if that is what salvation or enlightenment require? With the pre-Darwinian mindset history is just a depressing record of failure. But when we see that the Human mind is a machine, indeed a beautiful and marvellous one, but flawed also by its evolutionary past, then Human life becomes precious, positive and joyous rather than negative - to be enjoyed rather than endured.

However I am sad to say that amongst my acquaintances and associates I am almost alone in finding evolution to be a joyous discovery of liberation. The world at large seems to divide between those who reject evolution outright, and those who accept it reluctantly but are desperately going over the fine print trying to find loopholes and get out clauses. Dennett seems to have had a similar motivation for writing this book:

"The level of hostility and ignorance about evolution that was unabashedly expressed by eminent cognitive scientists on that occaision [Dec 1989, MIT] shocked me. (In fact, it was reflecting on that meeting that persuaded me I could no longer put off writing this book."

The key move in the book is the pair of contrasting metaphors: "skyhooks" and "cranes". Natural selection, sex and the eukaryotic nucleus are all cranes. Divine intervention would be a skyhook, but so was the "vital force" that was once thought to separate biology from chemistry.

In this terminology reductionism is characterised as explaining one layer of science in terms of lower levels using cranes but no skyhooks. Given that it is often taken for granted that reductionism is a bad thing, it seems Dennett has hit on something here - people seem to feel that only skyhooks can give meaning to life. On the other hand Dennett, concedes reductionism can go too far. An example would Skinner's behaviourism which brought real progress, but Skinner went too far even trying to explain morality in behaviouristic terms.

Having set up the terminology and some other background, the book becomes a careful crane-skyhook analysis of the battlefields of contemporary biology (or other fields touched by Darwin's theory): the origins of life; how gradual is evolution; gene centrism; origins of consciousness; the origins of morality and so on. For each issue Dennett shows how the new-Darwinian synthesis explains (or would most likely explain for say the origins of life) the issue and how at some point some writer or other has attempted to attack the theory - and how they failed.

The most interesting case is surely Stephen Jay Gould, ironically generally regarded as the greatest American evolutionist. He claimed to be combatting "Darwinian fundamentalism". [My memory is admittedly vague but I seem to recall that the first time I came across the theory of evolution was a full-spread newspaper article my Dad was reading describing how evolution had been replaced by punctuated equilibrium.] With regards to punctuated equilibrium most of the claims disappeared once you get the time scales correct. What remains is implicit in the theory of allopatric speciation and can be traced back to Darwin himself.

The book ends with some reflections on how the thinking person should relate to religion.

So what are we left with? People's (even atheists' and scientist's) yearning for skyhooks seems to suggest that they feel Darwin destroyed the meaning of life. I can remember a time when I might have felt that, but the more I learn about the theory of evolution the more precious and exciting life actually becomes for me.

Oh and this is a careful but controversial book, one well worth reading. But I wish it offered more insight into the psychology of skyhook-yearning.
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Initial post: 1 Jul 2013 11:07:45 BDT
Lovely review, thanks, Mad - puts mine in the shade
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