Darwin's Dangerous Idea Essay - Critical Essays

Daniel C. Dennett

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The study of Darwinian theory has attracted many of the brightest minds and best writers during the past twenty years. In DARWIN’S DANGEROUS IDEA, Dennett attempts to integrate an enormously diverse range of research into a coherent but popularly understandable defense of neo- Darwinian thought. Darwin’s “dangerous idea” is clearly held forth and reiterated throughout the book— that all products of evolutionary change, from orchid shape to human intelligence, are manufactured at the algorithmic level. Dennett argues that no matter how impressive the result, the fundamental process involves a set of individually mindless steps which require no intelligent supervision.

Dennett’s argument is carefully constructed and skillfully presented. First, at the level of style, he writes in an amusing and unaffected manner, realizing that rigorous philosophical arguments are usually ignored by everyone outside the discipline. Second, at the level of argument, he has confronted the necessary multiplicity of factors by grouping them into three categories, each designed to build upon the previous one in order to provide an accumulating weight of evidence in favor of mindless algorithmic evolution. Just as Darwin had hit upon the Principle of Accumulation of Design to explain the scientific processes involved in evolution, Dennett employs the Principle of an Accumulation of Evidences to convince readers that Darwin was right.

The most direct threat which Dennett sees to full acceptance of the theory of mindless evolution is the popular scientific writing of Stephen Jay Gould. According to his theory of punctuated equilibrium, radical contingency rather than persistent and gradual adaptation dictated the pace of evolutionary development. Dennett argues that Gould is vainly attempting to protect the old philosophical position of “mind-first”, in which humanity is mysteriously shielded from the full implications of evolution by algorithm. Dennett dismisses arguments from faith out of hand, putting it “bluntly” that anyone today who doubts human evolution is simply ignorant.

DARWIN’S DANGEROUS IDEA is a tour de force of intellectual integration. It is also far more speculative than Dennett would have readers believe.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCI, May 1, 1995, p. 1541.

The Economist. CCCXXXVI, July 29, 1995, p. 65.

Library Journal. CXX, April 15, 1995, p. 109.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 14, 1995, p. 3.

National Review. XLVII, May 15, 1995, p. 63.

Nature. CCCLXXV, June 8, 1995, p. 457.

New Statesman and Society. VIII, October 13, 1995, p. 34.

The New York Times Book Review. C, May 14, 1995, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, March 27, 1995, p. 66.

The Wall Street Journal. August 4, 1995, p. A6.