Nicholas Copernicus first proposed that the earth was not the centre of the universe, but, in fact, revolved around the sun, in 1853. It took over a century for the idea to sink in — a gradual and rather agonising transformation. The Darwinian perestroika has been no different, notwithstanding the fact that the old world, as the good bishops thought, crashed to pieces with the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. Yet, more than a century+ after Charles Darwin’s death, one is yet to come to terms with its mind-boggling implications.
Agreed that science has been exemplarily global in the development and progression of the Darwinian doctrine, unlike the Copernican proposition which did not fascinate public attention early on. What is, however, most remarkable in the Darwinian mindset is its monumental strength; a power that has been recognised instantly by scientists, thinkers, and the laity, who have been taking sides ever since Darwin’s brilliant musings saw the light of day — what with large gaps in his theory having recently been filled in.
If Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had propounded his theory that species had evolved from simpler forms by the inheritance of the effects of use and disuse, and Immanuel Kant had spoken of the possibility of apes becoming men, as much as Johann Wolfgang Goethe had written of the ‘metamorphosis’ of plants, Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, published 20 years ago, bids fair to one inescapable au fait.
Writes Dennett, the distinguished Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University, Massachusetts, US: “The Darwinian revolution is both a scientific and a philosophical revolution, and neither revolution could have occurred without the other… In a single stroke, the idea of natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law… [It’s] not just a wonderful scientific idea. It is a dangerous idea… [because] not only does Darwin’s dangerous idea apply to us directly, and at many levels, but the proper application of Darwinian thinking to human issues — of mind, language, knowledge, and ethics, for instance — illuminates them in ways that have eluded the traditional approaches, recasting ancient problems and pointing to their solutions.’’
John Locke, the renowned empiricist, often took ‘refuge’ in one of philosophy’s most ancient and superfluously used maxims: nothing can come from nothing. In Locke’s time — which was also René Descartes’ day — the fundamental idea of artificial intelligence was unthinkable, if the mind must come first. The birth of artificial intelligence, on the other hand, was all but prophesied by Darwin himself, a classical, paradigmatically amazing proof or evidence of the formal power of natural selection. If this isn’t genius, what is? As Dennett observes: “Darwin [showed] us how to climb from ‘Absolute Ignorance’ to creative genius without begging any questions… The truth of Darwinism [is] that you and I are Mother Nature’s artefacts, but our intentionality is nonetheless real for being the effect of millions of years of mindless, algorithmic R&D, instead of a gift from the high… The generations of adaptations and the generations of diversity were different aspects of a single complex phenomenon — the unifying insight was the principal of natural selection.”
Dennett claims that there is nothing ‘sacred’ in the traditional sense of the word, and explains how Darwin’s theory of natural selection, scientific in every ‘way’ possible, extends far beyond biology. In so doing, Dennett, the celebrated author of yet another celebrated tome, Consciousness Explained, lays bare several current controversies about the origin of life, punctuated ‘balance,’ sociobiology, the evolution of language and culture, and evolutionary ethics. His inferences are surprising, yet powerful and illuminating… or, even deeply persuading of Darwin’s/Darwinism’s signal fact that evolution by natural selection is vital to the future of philosophy. Not all readers of the book under scrutiny will be thoroughly convinced of ‘opuses’ espoused by Dennett; but, most will be the better for it — informed, entertained and provoked by his articulating, albeit non-conformist arguments.
RELIGION & FUNDAMENTALISM
Dennett dwells, and rightly so, upon the tremendous rebirth of religious fundamentalism — the most dangerous force of all on this planet. He writes, “Is there a conflict between science and religion here? There most certainly is.” Interspersed with such thoughts, Dennett counters Darwin’s dangerous idea too — an idea which helps to create a condition in the memosphere [mem = unit of cultural transmission] — one that in the long run threatens to be just as toxic to [these] memes as civilisation, in general, has been inimical to the large wild animals. Says Dennett, “Save the elephants! Yes, of course, but not by all means. Not by forcing the people of Africa live nineteenth-century lives, for instance. [We] must find an accommodation. [And, what’s more] safety demands that religions be put in cages, too — like animals which are dangerous — when absolutely necessary.”
In what appears to be the most fascinating raison d’être of Dennett’s work is this fact: that Darwin’s idea is much more than a universal solvent panacea, capable of cutting right to the heart of everything in sight… where traditional details perish. Some loss, yes — but, good riddance to the rest of them. What remains is more than enough to build upon. Argues Dennett, “We now have a much better sense of what a Darwinian algorithm is than Darwin ever dreamt of… Intrepid reverse engineering has brought us to the point where we can confidently assess rival claims about exactly what happened where on this planet billions of years ago. The miracles of life and consciousness turn out to be even better that we imagined when we were sure they were inexplicable.”
If inference of adaptation is usually the basis of a genetic story, adaptive, and genetic, Darwinism is a theory of genetic change and variation in population. “Fortunately for us” says Dennett, “Darwin was not politically correct.” So also pantheism which has variety, but lacks convincing explanation. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza called his highest being god or nature. And, Darwin? Darwin expatiated his marvellous credo as distribution of design throughout nature, creating in the ‘Tree of Life’ an utterly unique and irreplaceable creation, “an actual pattern in the immeasurable reaches of Design Space that could not be duplicated exactly in its many details.” Darwin thought and, perforce, rightly too, that this design work just happened, not miraculously or even instantaneously, but slowly, over billions of years — a wonderful wedding of chance and necessity, happening in a trillion places at once, at a trillion different levels. Did this ‘Tree of Life’ create itself, where one could pray or fear? Probably not. Dennett echoes Friedrich Nietzsche’s wisdom: “I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence.” Ditto for human life. A human life worth living is not something that can be uncontroversially measured, and that’s its glory.
THE GRAND VIEW OF LIFE
Darwin provided enormous support to the maxim, nature does not make leaps. Well, nothing can describe evolution better than the closing sentence of Darwin’s magnum opus: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into new forms or into one; and, that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
In the course of his eminently readable book, Dennett gives a kaleidoscopic view of several paradigms: of good, and some not so good, including a host of foibles. One example: the makers of Jurassic Park, a fantasy, according to Dennett, never addressed the problem of the DNA-reader at all, and used frog DNA just to patch the missing parts of the dinosaur DNA. Dennett quotes an authority who says that this was an interesting error — because, humans, are, of course, more closely related to dinosaurs than either is to frogs.
Human DNA would, therefore, have been better than frog DNA; bird DNA would have been better still. If Darwin, reading Thomas Robert Malthus’ Essay on Population, conceived the motif of applying to all organisms the Malthusian hypothesis that populations tend to increase faster than the means of subsistence, Dennett is ‘cock-a-hoop’ with Darwin’s own notion of the fittest a la Kant’s pragmatism and ‘practical reason,’ or Schopenhauer’s exaltation of the will. To Dennett, Darwin is not only the Amerigo Vespucci of his age, and beyond, but something of its Christopher Columbus too. Darwin, quite simply, holds a great promise. His idea is so puissant, notes Dennett, that it is pre-eminently suitable to put our most cherished visions of life on a new foundation. “[Because] almost no one is indifferent to Darwin, and no one should be… The fundamental core of contemporary Darwinism, the theory of DNA-based reproduction and evolution, is now beyond dispute among scientists.”
So, what is that truly dangerous aspect of Darwin’s ideas? Dennett’s riposte, the essential theme song of his lucid work is: “Seductiveness… Second-rate versions of the fundamental ideas continue to bedevil us, so we must keep a clean watch, correcting each other as we go. The only way of avoiding the mistakes is to learn from the mistakes we have already made.” Yes, Dennett is obsessed with the magical, highly logical apotheosis of Darwinian roseateness, but he isn’t blind or averse to judgment. He offers his readers, through his scholarly tome, the choice — balancing Darwinism, or rejecting it, and fighting on, being ever vigilant against the seduction of Darwin’s ideas, evolution and the meaning of life.
His bottom line: you be the judge.