Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett looks at Darwinian theory and what follows from that.

It is packed with interesting ideas but is also incredibly long. When your book is significantly longer than Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, your book is probably too long. I struggled to take a lot of it in, partly because there were so many ideas, but partly also because it was such a huge text to really look at in perspective.

Dennett explains how evolution is a algorithmic process and yet is simultaneously capable of creating the entire tree of life. This includes the human mind of course, which is perhaps the most controversial part of the theory, even though the only alternative theory that has been proposed so far is “god did it”.

Many of the concepts he uses to explain the theory are well-thought-out too. For example, skyhooks and cranes. SKyhooks are a miracle that just happen (Dennett claims none exist) whereas cranes are structures that build on top of each other in slow steps (how things actually work). Notably, once the structure has been built, the crane may then disappear, though there is often a trace of it left.

It is also important to look at things from an evolutionary perspective. Take sleep for example. One of my friends once said to me “you know, there is no reason for sleep – we can’t find any biological reason why we need to do it! What’s it for?”

I never knew the answer to that question. However, as Dennett points out, the answer could be that we are looking at it from the wrong way round. Sleep is safe. Plants, and many simple lifeforms spend their entire lives in this state. It is the default state. We assume that we are supposed to be awake but from an evolutionary perspective this might not be the case. It could be that being awake is something Mother Nature cooked up to allow us to find food and procreate easier, but once that is done there is no point wasting more energy.

Overall, I am not suggesting that the 3.7 billion years of life fighting for survive can be compared with my struggle to read Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and its many big words. They are different things entirely. Despite it being tough going, I am glad I read it as it contains some incredibly insightful ideas packaged into one text about the origin of life from a philosophical perspective.

We should feel special because most genetic lines are now dead. But not us. We have an unbroken chain of ancestors right back to 3.7 billion years ago. That is amazing. But do not feel too special, as every blade of grass you can see has that too…




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This entry was posted on Saturday, September 6th, 2014 at 10:50 am and is filed under Books. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.