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

4.1 out of 5 stars 72 customer reviews

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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 (72 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 34,657 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

Product Description

Amazon Review

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

Review

Carl Sagan

"The Washington Post Book World"

A breath of fresh air.



John Gribbin

"Sunday Times," London

This is the best single-author overview of all the implications of evolution by natural selection available....Lucid and entertaining.



Richard Dawkins

author of "The Blind Watchmaker"

A surpassingly brilliant book. Where creative, it lifts the reader to new intellectual heights. Where critical, it is devastating.



James Moore

coauthor of "Darwin"

A brilliant piece of persuasion, excitingly argued and compulsively readable. Its lucid metaphors and charming analogies are reminiscent of "On the Origin of Species."



Jim Holt

"The Wall Street Journal"

Dennett is a philosopher of rare originality, rigor, and wit. Here he does one of the things philosophers are supposed to be good at: clearing up conceptual muddles in the sciences.



Richard Rorty

"Lingua Franca"

One of our most original and most readable philosophers....Once in a blue moon an analytic philosopher comes along who redeems his subdiscipline by combining professional persnicketiness with a romantic spirit, a vivid imagination, and a sense of humor.



Carl Sagan"The Washington Post Book World"A breath of fresh air.

John Gribbin"Sunday Times," LondonThis is the best single-author overview of all the implications of evolution by natural selection available....Lucid and entertaining.

Richard Dawkinsauthor of "The Blind Watchmaker"A surpassingly brilliant book. Where creative, it lifts the reader to new intellectual heights. Where critical, it is devastating.

James Moorecoauthor of "Darwin"A brilliant piece of persuasion, excitingly argued and compulsively readable. Its lucid metaphors and charming analogies are reminiscent of "On the Origin of Species."

Jim Holt"The Wall Street Journal"Dennett is a philosopher of rare originality, rigor, and wit. Here he does one of the things philosophers are supposed to be good at: clearing up conceptual muddles in the sciences.

Richard Rorty"Lingua Franca"One of our most original and most readable philosophers....Once in a blue moon an analytic philosopher comes along who redeems his subdiscipline by combining professional persnicketiness with a romantic spirit, a vivid imagination, and a sense of humor.

Jim Holt "The Wall Street Journal" Dennett is a philosopher of rare originality, rigor, and wit. Here he does one of the things philosophers are supposed to be good at: clearing up conceptual muddles in the sciences.

Richard Rorty "Lingua Franca" One of our most original and most readable philosophers....Once in a blue moon an analytic philosopher comes along who redeems his subdiscipline by combining professional persnicketiness with a romantic spirit, a vivid imagination, and a sense of humor.

James Moore coauthor of "Darwin" A brilliant piece of persuasion, excitingly argued and compulsively readable. Its lucid metaphors and charming analogies are reminiscent of "On the Origin of Species."

John Gribbin "Sunday Times, " London This is the best single-author overview of all the implications of evolution by natural selection available....Lucid and entertaining.

Richard Dawkins author of "The Blind Watchmaker" A surpassingly brilliant book. Where creative, it lifts the reader to new intellectual heights. Where critical, it is devastating.

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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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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Format: Paperback
This fascinating, difficult book has a simple premise: evolution describes a colossal series of individual, algorithmic steps, none of which is accompanied by any specific intention or intelligence.
At first glance this proposition seems non-controversial but, as Dennett makes very clear, the implications of this theory being right are anything but: once you accept this fundamental premise, the ground under certain positions on a number of other hoary old philosophical chestnuts begins to give way:
* God - if there's no need for intentionality or intelligence at any point in the evolutionary process, then as Oolon Colluphid might say, "That about wraps it up for God" - there's no room at the inn (ahem) for *any* God (omnipotent or otherwise) as a creator of the universe, and since religious claims to ethical validity derive from God's status as both the creator and "ruler" of the universe, they too evaporate in a puff of logic;
* Mind/AI - if we evolved from organisms which do not have any form of consciousness, and that process did not itself involve intentionality or intelligence (until the arrival of human intelligence, which Dennett would describe as a "crane") then any account of consciousness *must* be wholly explicable in physical terms, and (though Dennett doesn't say this) it must be conceptually possible, with the correct technology (which we may of course never have), to synthesise not just the functional equivalent of consciousness, but actual consciousness itself.
This second point (but not the extrapolation) is the central thesis of Dennett's equally excellent (and difficult) book "Consciousness Explained".
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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. However, the algorithm is easy to understand and reliable in any environment enabling it to perform.
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