Review of DARWIN’S DANGEROUS IDEA By Daniel C. Dennett
This is a very dangerous book; it proves Christians and Muslims are correct about their worry and fear of evolution, that the latter is very anti-religious.
According to Dennett, Darwinian evolution destroys all religious faith, is indeed a powerful super-acid which burns away all traditional beliefs and explanations about life and humankind completely!
A mighty big claim is it not?
But coming from one of the most brilliant of modern scientists, the claim ought to be studied carefully.
Despite the sincere, thoughtful efforts of scientists who are Christians such as Francis Collins and Simon Conway Morris, most religious people think religion and evolution are opposites, and incompatible.
Secondly, even though intriguing compromises by brilliant evolutionary biologists such as nontheist Stephen Jay Gould put forward ways that evolution and religion can co-exist in harmony as with his N.O.M.A., most don't agree.
Non-religious people think of religion as delusional and contrary to science.
Dennett strongly agrees.
He goes even further, beyond the factual disagreements, and emphasizes that Darwinian evolution is completely atheistic and deliberately hostile to Christianity!
In the lucid and powerfully written book, Dennett explains in great detail, making a fairly convincing argument for Darwinian evolution, not just in the area of scientific detail but as overwhelming fact and the very cornerstone of Existence.
He traces the development of life through natural selection from over 3 billion years ago down to the modern day.
There is a strong tendency toward materialistic determinism as a philosophical truism in this brilliant tome, though at other times Dennett sometimes sounds almost like a secular pantheist!
It's difficult to tell from his prose if this is only a pleasing rhetorical flourish to liven up the complex scientific evidence or if Dennett is conflicted within himself as to the essential nature of reality. My guess is the former.
However in other writings Dennett has stated that he isn’t a hard determinist. So it is difficult to ascertain his real philosophical views based on Dangerous Idea alone.
Maybe he threw in the positive pantheistic-sounding phrases to alleviate the gloomy almost nihilistic negation of his central thesis—that Darwinian evolution burns away everything that humans think.
Consider Dennett’s negative example of a priest’s commitment to celibacy; he says such an outlook and commitment is an “infestation”!
What a biased extremely negative assessment.
However, then—apparently aware of his overstatement--Dennett states two sentences later that he isn’t making a moral judgment on whether celibacy is good or bad.
It’s sort of ironic that even though he emphasizes atheism is the result of the evidence of evolution, he refers to the natural world as “Mother Nature."
His use of the cliched phrase just seems another ‘short hand’ method like many literary writers refer to “Father God,” not meant literally but metaphorically. a tendency to personify nature, evolution, natural selection
Yet how well do we theists know that atheists constantly harp at us for using anything symbolic as drastically deluded and “dishonest.”
But, of course, if they do the same, use language symbolically, it’s fine.
Also, Dennett often uses ‘intentional’ words despite his claim that existence has no intention.
This is a characteristic I have noticed in all atheistic scientists from Bertrand Russell to Richard Dawkins—a tendency to give evolution agency:
“evolution gave us,”
or our brains were “programmed” by natural selection.
Why do they do this?
This is in direct contradiction to their claim that nothing happens for purpose and that there is no meaning, and that evolution has no direction.
What an oxymoron of a word for atheists to use since programming is one of the most complex rational skills one can acquire. What sort of sense does it make to claim that evolution has no purpose, no meaning, no direction, but that it is "programmed"?
Watching my relatives program hour after hour and then trying to read a programming book to understand how it is done, I realize programming is much more difficult than most people realize.
Also, scientists who are atheists will give pages of scientific and philosophical reasons why there is no purpose to existence, how moral realism is fallacious, but then go right ahead and use essentialist terms such as ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ and say how it is important to do the “right thing”!
Some even claim to support human rights, yet immediately at the same time claim that there are no ethical truths, that “evil” is only what is “unpleasant” to someone. Heck, some of them even claim that murder is sometimes good or that in a different time and place, rape and slavery would be normal.
Is this perhaps evidence that whether they like it or not, even atheists are “meaning-centered” creatures?
It’s intriguing that Dennett (like Russell, Kurtz, etc.) adopts meaning-centered words such as “sacred’ which would seem to imply that he is at least at a weak level, a secular pantheist, as mentioned before.
But if the whole cosmos and everything in it, especially nature, is totally meaningless and purposeless, how in the world could anything be “sacred”?
Again, in this book, Dennett treats humanity as only a complex organism in a meaningless algorithm repeating eternally.
Indeed, Dennett repeatedly quotes Nietzsche—almost with delight it seems—in his attempt to kill every sacred cow of all theists and essentialists.
It is only when Dennett verges into utter nihilism that he back-steps and uses pantheistic terms and talks about “moral values.”
Despite all of these negative points about Dennett’s questionable philosophical base and a number of ‘sore-thumb’ contradictions in his rhetoric, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is an amazing scientific tour-de-force.
Daniel C. Dennett is an example of a brilliant scientist who has "fathered" my understanding of existence and the natural world, of how natural selection has moved over several billion years to result in us--and in me living now, thinking in Big Time, and typing this book review on a state-of-the-art computer.
Yes, at a scientific and philosophical reasoning level, the book is convincing—at least in the part that I could understand.
(Much of the middle section of the tome is quite technical for the average reader.)
The book maroons us from any theism in relation to specific scientific evidence. It does burn like a super-acid through all our hopes and beliefs, and values and ethics. At least it did mine.
Where Dennett’s argument becomes weak, however, is when he tries to argue that existence could have come from nothing and that life could have come from non-life, etc.
Speculatively, it is possible that everything that IS could have all come about by a cosmic Chance or by a cosmic meaningless Determinism of eternal matter and energy.
But, even given all the evidence that Dennett provides for evolution not having a direction, the question is, how the origin of everything including life and the algorithms of evolution, and the cosmos itself with its “natural laws,” came about?
That is a very different sort of asking. And there is no evidence at this point in history for the whole cosmos coming from nothing; that's only speculation.
There is no scientific evidence that billions of everything only popped into being from nothing for nothing.
So my question for Dennett is, “Why do you prefer to think that meaningless impersonal algorithms eternally ARE rather than think that Intelligence eternally IS?
Based on the existence of consciousness, reason, math, “natural laws,” creativity, and purposefulness which humans discovered in their evolutionary development doesn’t it seem more likely that reality itself has intelligence, purpose, creativity, and purpose?
Which seems more plausible that matter and energy by chance or fate (determinism) brought forth existence and then life in all its incredible forms and then produced millions of intelligent species stretched across the universe or the multiverse
that Intelligence via natural laws brought about existence including life, consciousness, creativity, reason, and purpose?
I agree that there is no scientific proof either way for essentialism or for materialism.
So, yes, I agree with Dennet, the super-acid of natural selection has proven that young earth creationism is bogus and delusional. Most of the public's understanding of life and how everything came to be is illusionary.
Only the most compartmentalized and unthinking humans can hold to such an extreme view. Their irrational commitment to a particular text of ancient literature--whether the Bible or the Qur'an blinds them to the very clear facts of science.
But scientists who adopt the opposite extreme—that of complete materialism, where intelligent life is a complete fluke also seem to have let preconceptions distort the evidence.
Materialism isn’t a necessary, or even a more likely outcome of evolution.
Worst of all such negative speculation ends in nihilism. Then not only has the “super-acid” burned away religion, it has burned away all hope and all humanism.
It’s one thing to show through scientific evidence that evolution led to homo sapiens, that there are no miracles; but it's a totally different claim to state that all of this means nothing and is totally unrelated to intelligence.
Making speculative philosophical claims is very different from the solid evidence of fossils and DNA.
This can be seen by the very fact that many famous scientists totally disagree about such ultimate issues. Despite all the evidence that Dennett marshals in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, about 51% of scientists still think that some God or some higher power is true.
41% are atheists.
Currently, young adult scientists, according to Pew Research, are more likely to think God exists, than older scientists. Why is this so if evolution proves atheism?
For every atheistic Daniel C. Dennett, there is a theistic Simon Conway Morris or a Orthodox Christian Theodosius Dobzhansky. After all, Dobzhansky is one of the most famous evolutionists of the 20th century, yet is a committed theist.
Even atheists disagree about the most basic philosophical issues related to existence and life. Some atheistic scientists such as paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and French biologist and Nobel prize winner Jacques Monod write that life came about by “chance” and “accident.” Gould says that if the universe came only one more time, it's unlikely that homo sapiens would even evolve into existence!
Others contradict that claim and state homo sapiens are part of a vast deterministic necessity. This is the proclaimed view of biologist Jerry Coyne and neuroscientist Sam Harris and others.
Everything is so determined that if Time/Space happened again a “trillion” times, a professional golfer would miss his short putt every time.
And in all those "trillion" times, you would never get to choose what to have for lunch.
So much more tragically worse, every unjust human will by cosmic necessity again pillage, murder,and rape. See, no one has an iota of choice.
Why does Dennett appear to agree at least partially with such nihilistic determinism of those like Coyne and Harris?
Especially since in the book he keeps emphasizing that natural selection has no direction. If natural selection has no direction and involves any chance whatsoever, it would seem that each time the universe pops into existence, that things and events would most likely be different. Because, of course, by definition, determinism is lock-step directional, is, completely, one cosmic block of time/space amber.
Determinism: “philosophy : the belief that all events are caused by things that happened before them and that people have no real ability to make choices or control what happens”
“1a : a theory or doctrine that acts of the will, occurrences in nature, or social or psychological phenomena are causally determined by preceding events or natural laws.”
Figuring out reality, ‘ain’t’ easy:-)
For those who would like to be fathered by a scientist who is a theist, check out professor Kenneth R. Miller of Brown University.
As a cell biologist and convinced Darwinian evolutionist, Kenneth R. Miller wrote a powerful book, Finding Darwin's God, against religious creationism and against Intelligent Design.
But as the title emphasizes his book also strongly disagrees with the views of atheists such as Dennett. He doesn't think that evolution leads to atheism. Miller, himself, is a convinced theist.
In conclusion, Daniel Dennett does a great job explaining in layman’s terms the complex and difficult concepts of Darwinian evolution.
His powerful writing style shows best in his humorist use of metaphor such as the central motif, comparing Darwinianism to super-acid.
Despite Darwin’s Dangerous Idea leaning toward nihilistic conclusions, and at times being difficult for a non-scientist to understand, it is truly a landmark book.
Read the book and be stretched intellectually and philosophically.
In the Light,