International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life

by Daniel C. Dennett

Introductory Essay by Francisco J. Ayala

The philosopher Daniel Dennett has been called a "Darwinian fundamentalist", a sobriquet he bears with pride. His 1995 book Darwin's Dangerous Idea is an attempt to establish natural selection as the fundamental process that explains adaptive design and function in all organisms, including humans, and that extends beyond biology to ethics, language and meaning.

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea has three parts. Part I “locates the Darwinian Revolution in the larger scheme of things showing how it can transform the worldview of those who know its details” [22]. Chapter 1 sets out the background of philosophical ideas that dominated western thought through the first half of the nineteenth century. Dennett has unbridled admiration for Darwin’s theory of natural selection, his dangerous idea. “If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’ll give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, (Darwin’s dangerous idea) unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law” [21]. Chapters 2-5 explore how natural selection overturns, in Dennett’s view, the philosophical and theological traditions described in chapter 1.

There have arisen, ever since Darwin, challenges from biology itself to Darwin’s idea. These challenges are the subject of Part II: “neutral evolution” from molecular biology; “punctuated equilibrium” from Stephen Jay Gould; computer and meta-engineering hermeneutics from Stuart Kauffman and others. Dennett argues that “Darwin’s survives these controversies not just intact but strengthened” [22].

Part III is titled “Mind, Meaning, Mathematics, and Morality,” which well sets the subject matter. According to Dennett, the proper application of Darwinian thinking to human issues—such as mind, language, knowledge, and ethics—illuminates them in ways that had eluded the traditional approaches. When we trade in pre-Darwinian for Darwinian thinking, ancient problems are recast and new solutions emerge.

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea “is largely about science but is not itself a work of science … I have tried … to make it possible for you to read the scientific literature … Highly technical philosophical arguments of the sort many philosophers favor are absent here.” Dennett’s vigorous prose is lucid and at times colorful. He has a gift for illuminating metaphors. Thus, the universal acid metaphor for “a liquid so corrosive that it will eat through anything! The problem is: what do you keep it in? It dissolves glass bottles and stainless-steel canisters … (Darwin’s idea bears) an unmistakable likeness to universal acid: it eats trough just about every traditional concept” [63]. Traditional philosophical and theological explanations are skyhooks, “an imaginary means of suspension in the sky” [74]. Evolutionary sciences, in contrast, provide cranes. “Cranes can do the lifting work our imaginary skyhooks might do, and they do it in an honest, non-question-begging fashion” [75].

People of faith should not expect much encouragement. Dennett is a self-proclaimed atheist. In his Breaking the Spell, he muses that beliefs promote their own survival more than that of the believers. Religious cults cast evil spells, just like fanatical politics, addictive drugs, gambling, alcohol, and child pornography. He sees himself as the valiant knight set to break the spell: the hold that Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other religions have on individuals and societies.