Notes by RBJ on

Darwin's Dangerous Idea

by Daniel C. Dennett

Part II - Darwinian Thinking in Biology

Chapter 7Priming Darwin's Pump
Chapter 8Biology is Engineering
Chapter 9Searching for Quality
Chapter 10Bully for Brontosaurus

Chapter 7 - Priming Darwin's Pump

  1. Dennett leaves no refuge for God, and in his desperate struggle to do this is prepared to elevate Darwinism to theology.
  2. He then shows that when it comes to explaining the origin of life (as opposed to its subsequent evolution) there is still so far to go that belief remains pretty much an act of faith (this is my conclusion from what he writes, definitely not what he is trying to say).
  3. Next we have an even less plausible attempt to show that the fundamental laws of physics, and in fact, absolutely everything, can be explained by evolution, which, even in these ethereal regions, is a hypothesis much superior to God.
Darwinism, in Dennett's hands, has been generalised to a point at which it is, like the God Dennett wishes to replace, neither a scientifically useful hypothesis nor even a coherent one.

What it doesn't explain to me is, why the Universe is not an apple-core.

Contrast Dennett's religious intolerance with the more enlightened attitude of Gould in his essay Knight takes Bishop?.

Highspots of the chapter:

  1. A precise dissection of varieties of the anthropic principle (inference from the fact that we exist) showing just where it goes beyond reason.
  2. A neat critique of computer simulation as a scientific method; mention of the word "theory" (only one paragraph, but well packed and right on).
  3. The story behind Conway's game of life.

Chapter 8 - Biology is Engineering

This chapter sketches out some of the detail you need to know to understand the engineering aspects of biology and evolution. It also has some philosophical undercurrents.

The engineering content includes bits about:

  1. Eigen's work on the molecular mechanics of life.
  2. How the meaning of the genome depends on the environment in which it is decoded.
  3. The first, faintly genetic, learning checkers program.
  4. The attack from complexity theory (Kauffman).
On the philosophical side:
  1. Engineering is a greatly neglected discipline, especially by philosophers. Why is there no "Philosophy of Engineering"? (I intend to do some, but the closest I can muster at present is Philosophy of Computer Science, which is really an engineering discipline).
  2. Darwin's great idea is capable of absorbing all critiques.
  3. Dennett locates the birth of meaning.

Chapter 9 - Searching for Quality

I think this chapter is a dress rehearsal for the full blooded attack on Gould which follows in the next chapter.

Roughly speaking the layout is:

  1. First know that adaptationist thinking is really hot stuff.
  2. Next meet Gould and Lewontin and discover that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
  3. But finally rest assured, this possibility does not refute the essential Darwinian adaptationism (not even if it's called pervasive adaptation). It highlights the true Darwinism and is news only to cheapskates.

Chapter 10 - Bully for Brontosaurus

Wherein Dennett trashes the deluded heretic Gould.

UP HOME © RBJ created 1997/1/12 modified 1997/2/3