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4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars

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on 5 May 2017
I have read about 25% so far. It is telling me a lot of what I already knew but from a rather different viewpoint than prvious publications on the topic of evolution.
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on 3 April 2017
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A simply dazzling exposition of full-on, non-revisionist Darwinism. Dennett's take on what we might call the Gouldian heresy (at least spandrels and punctuated equilibrium, if not NOMA, which cropped up subsequently) is magisterial. Danny's up there with Charlie in secular sanctity (and I'd add Albert too; 'God does not play dice', ergo no free will, ergo no 'God' as dogmas understand the term)

'There is no such thing as philosophy-free science.' This is a philosopher's eye-view of Darwin's knock-on effect. Dogmatists of every stripe are right to beware. Darwin's dangerous idea is that everything evolves, including meaning. But God gave us minds to think with, no? If we accept 'without tears or terror' that the sun does not circle the earth, why baulk at evolution's implications? 'It is rather as if there were metallurgists around who were disappointed by the algorithmic explanation of annealing. 'You mean that's all there is to it? No submicroscopic Superglue specially created by the heating and cooling process?' ..[E]volution, like annealing, works.' An intoxicating read. Think you know it all? Read Ch3.3 on the Second Law of Thermodynamics (Time's Arrow). Before embarking you may find helpful the lead three- and four-star reviews on amazon.com. If we can only keep sane by living a lie, Dennett avers, 'I would conclude that nothing matters after all'

NB MIT is not indexed under Massachusetts. Has it changed its name?

And may I cross-reference The Science of Discworld III: Darwin's Watch, the existence of which (the Science of.. series) I have this very minute come across. In the alternative universe thread to which the hard science is appended Darwin is the author of Theology of Species!
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on 14 October 2009
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.

This is a great philosophical romp, with tons of humour and brilliant expositions of new and old ideas. A useful short summary of each chapter and a preview of the next is given at the end of every chapter. The book as whole is nicely written, clear and sensible.
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on 29 July 2014
Overly wordy and difficulty to follow quite disappointed from author I really like normally.
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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. In evolution, algorithms represent the step by step process through which groups of individuals become new species. Another of his terms, "the crane," relies on the algorithmic idea, which are the foundation on which cranes rely. Cranes, of course, are building tools. In evolution, cranes rest on previous conditions, building up new forms through the adaptive process. It's a terribly slow and inefficient method, but over time it works. The proof is that you're reading this now.
This book is a most thorough effort to address Darwin's idea in a philosophic framework. Not a biological text, DDI urges us to reconsider our values in light of the realities Darwin's Idea. Dennett want us to think logically and clearly without resorting to easy answers and taking shortcuts in arriving at conclusions. He achieves this with finesse, tempered with a fine wit to sustain our attention. It's a readable and challenging work, conveying meaningful concepts for furthering human progress. More significantly, it's a most valuable work. Only Darwin's Origin transcends it in impact on shaping values. In a world where Harry Potter books are banned from churches for being "soft on witchcraft" and evolution is given short shrift in public schools, it's clear that Dennett's theme requires greater attention.
[stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 3 October 2005
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. Gould was famous and in the public eye, but back behind the scenes in the evolution world among his peers - according to Dennett - it seems that the situation was a lot more turbulent and controversial for Gould. Dennett describes Gould's "punctuated equilibrium" theory, a sort of stop start idea of steps in evolution that was supposed to overturn Darwin. Dennett thinks that the elimination of small Darwin adaptive steps was a confused and half baked idea (my paraphrase). This of course contains much irony since Gould himself wrote Wonderful Life based on the errors of Walcott and the Burgess Shale. As pointed out by Dennett elsewhere, Dennett explained to Gould that he was writing the book and was commenting on the flaws in Gould's theory. He met with Gould and received all his publications from Gould. At first Gould was helpful, but when Dennett found the inconsistencies among them, Gould went silent in their communications for almost a year, and refused to answer questions pertaining to Dennett's questions. The problem is that Gould had flip-flopped and back-tracked over the years until Gould's sudden non-linear jumps, followed by periods of little genetic change, were in fact toned down to just "speed changes" in Darwin's theory of small adaptive steps. It was no longer a revolution in evolution by Gould.
This Dennett book is far ranging and covers many topics in genetics and evolution. It is 18 chapters long and covers the subjects in a chatty style. The book is not a quick read and would take about a week to read, on and off 3 or 4 hours per day. I read about a quarter in my first read and got excited when I got to pages 156 through 163. Here starting on page 156 he describes how the first molecules or structures of life were formed. He tells us about a possibly of a replicating parasitic macromolecule, or a type of partial or pre-virus. It is likely, or at least possible, that first life was based on fragments of proteins and RNA being attracted to silica surfaces or similar. It is all very interesting, especially the idea that catalysts might have increased the mathematical probabilities of interaction to produce life, and that it is based on just common inorganic molecules found in the silica rich clays of earth's streams and lakes. He has numerous other topics such as the tree of life, ideas about the species, Mendel, "the computer that learned to play checkers", so on and so forth.
I would like thank fellow reviewer Stephen A. Haines ("bigbunyip" - or see my profile page and go to Amazon friends) for bringing this book to my attention. I highly recommend this exceptional book. Here are some other sophisticated science books for the general reader:
Genome (1999) by Matt Ridley, The Fabric of The Cosmos (2004) a physics book by Briane Greene, and Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth (2003) by Andrew H. Knoll, and for a light treatment of genetics and society read: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1989 version updated from 1976), or the original book: The Origin of The Species, Charles Darwin, Modern Library (original 1859, reprinted 1993).
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on 12 August 2004
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". In many ways, I wish I had read Darwin's Dangerous Idea first, for the premises on which Dennett's account of consciousness are based are set out here in a great deal of depth. I don't think I fully "got" Consciousness Explained first time, so I am going to read it again now. After I've read a cheap and trashy thriller first, as a treat for being so good.
As you progress through Darwin's Dangerous Idea, having unequivocally lost the ideas of God and a "soul", a further order of things which are very central to civilisation as we know it start to collapse as well, most notably the ideas that there are external concepts of "right" and "wrong" at all.
Throughout the first three quarters of the book, Dennett is thoroughly persuasive, with the assistance of Richard Dawkins' wonderful idea of the "meme" (which is a great meme in itself); the idea which reproduces itself and mutates within and between human brains: Just as organisms do, "fit" memes find currency and reproduce with ease; and "weak" memes aren't able to occupy enough brains, and eventually die out.
It is analogies like these that display the power of the idea: the Darwinist meme has outgrown biology and is finding application (for which read: reproducing and mutating) in epistemology, ethics, sociology, economics and pretty much every other academic discipline when you stop to think about it. The implications for this, as a unificatory theory of everything, are immense.
Having said all this, Darwin's Dangerous Idea is not without its faults.
At times Dennett is needlessly provocative, and skirts dangerously close to ad hominem arguments in his dismissal of certain competing commentators, most notably Stephen Jay Gould. By being so he gives the impression of not being dispassionate (apologies, by the way, for the double negative, but I mean something different to "passionate"!) about the subject at hand. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it leads a sceptical reader to question how fairly opposing arguments may have been set out: unless one has read the competing works (and I certainly haven't) for all we know, Dennett may be rendering straw men or at least underselling the points lined up against him.
More curiously, having already picked fights with the religious, the spiritualists and the Marxist biologists, rather late in the piece Dennett wades into the ethics debate. He might have been better advised to leave morality for another time. His final two chapters purport to apply the "universal acid" of Darwinism to ethics. You would expect this to be a rout, but after noting (quite correctly) that between them such great minds as Hobbes, Mill, Kant and Rawls failed utterly to formulate any sort of method for adjudicating right and wrong, Dennett reaches not the obvious conclusion that there is no such thing (which seems to me to be the plain implication of everything the evolutionary theory stands for), but instead puts failures of moral judgment down to insufficient information at the time of judgment formation (one never knows *all* the facts, so one can't be expected to get it right) and ventures the suggestion that there is an evolutionarily explicable moral code, but we just can't always access it.
It is not clear why he even thinks this is necessary, especially since the very lesson of evolutionary biology is that it's quite possible for something extremely clever to come about by a concatenated series of not very clever steps. If this is enough to get humans from protoplasm to cave man, I couldn't fathom what Dennett's interest was in defending the notion that from cave man forwards, humans have needed some externally derived conduct code, especially when the one thing which is undeniable from recorded history is that that competing civilisations have never progressed their cause by being nice to each other. The final two chapters in my view can therefore be skipped without significant loss.
All in all, and notwithstanding these minor grumbles, I think this is an extremely valuable and thought-provoking book.
Olly Buxton
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VINE VOICEon 26 September 2013
This is a learned and deeply interesting work, but not to be read as an introduction to the subject, which is Darwin's theory of evolution; better to have read plenty of background first.

To some extent I felt he laboured fine points which are really a matter of judgement and interpretation, but there is no doubt that he thoroughly demolishes the need and justification of the tendency to rush to "skyhook" explanations of our existence. And, as he convincingly reasons, the "God-of-the-gaps" solution is the rock on which the creationist and religious argument ultimately perishes.

There may be a God. Who knows? But belief is a matter of faith. Only very foolish or very arrogant minds would claim to be able to "prove" His existence, or indeed, to disprove it.

The section towards the end of the book entitled "Redesigning Morality" is particularly worthwhile.
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As there are already some very good longer reviews of this thought-provoking book, I'll try to keep mine short: 'Darwin's Dangerous Idea' is about evolution; always by cranes, never by sky-hooks. One very arresting images that for Dennett Darwin's ideaof of evolution by natural selection has become a kind of 'universal acid', "cutting right to the heart of everything in sight". In essence then, despite numerous challenges, for Dennett Darwinian (or neo-Darwinian) orthodoxy has so far withstood all-comers. Key ideas discussed include evolution as algorithms, paths through 'design space', and the flaws of 'greedy reductionism'.

One of Dennett's favourite methods of thinking around complex issues is, naturally enough for a philosopher, the 'thought experiment'. These can seem rather convoluted, appearing to stray into wildly divergent territory. These scientific parables are, I think, intended to be, just like his beloved algorithms, 'substrate neutral' (read the book to find out what that means if it baffles you). And if one can keep in mind the point(s) he's illustrating, rather like a comedian telling a shaggy dog tale, he returns to an appropriate and consistent punch-line. I won't pretend I didn't find this heavy going at times, but the overall arc of the book is simple enough: Darwin was right, and the evidence keeps mounting in favour of his basic argument.

This is my first book by Dennett, and I have to confess that, as good as he can be, it is a bit windy. Ironically I felt, as when he attacks Gould's 'Spandrels of San Marco' ideas, that he and Gould have in common a slightly pompous and self-aggrandising air. They both seem to be deeply in love with their own authorial voice! Still, one sure sign of a stimulating read, to my mind at least, is that you find yourself accumulating a 'further reading' list. Not only did I, for the most part, enjoy this book, but it also made me go back to previous reading to re-examine it (Gould, Chomsky, etc.), buy new books (ranging from Edmund Gosse's Father and Son to Rebecca Stott's Darwin and the Barnacle), and filled me with excitement at the prospect of getting round to some of my as yet unread evolution-related books, such as Desmond and Moore's Darwin.
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