Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett

Lowdown: Deep discussions about the implications of Darwin's idea of evolution by natural selection.
And the winner of the "longest book I have read this year by a mile" award goes to... the philosopher Daniel Dennett, for his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Now, I don't know if you've ever heard of Dennet; I only heard about him for the first time after reading Richard Dawkins books. Dawkins quotes and refers to Dennet's writing quite often and it appears the two are good mates. There appear to be some good reasons for that, for reading books written by the pair has left me with the impression they are both intellectuals of the first degree and, despite what first impressions might lead you to believe given the title of Dennett's book, both are very firmly on the side of evidence when it comes to "that" debate between evolution and creation. Or, as Dennett says in the beginning of his book, you have to be totally ignorant not to accept Darwin's theory
of evolution by natural selection as fact.
So what is Darwin's Dangerous Idea about? Well, it's a philosophy book, and it discusses the implications of Darwin's theory. It starts off where most people have started off prior to Darwin, with the assumption that there is a god and that this god gives essence and meaning to things; then it explains evolution (albeit not to the same level of detail as Dawkins did in The Blind Watchmaker) and shows how Darwin's theory strips that old view bare and demonstrates its complete lack of a foundation by discussing the opposing view from Darwin, the view that meaning and complexity can come out of no meaning through the process of evolution. All this is done without the need for any magic, but rather through the gradual buildup of one crane on top of another.
The first thing to become redundant when viewed along the lines of Darwin's Dangerous Idea is god. Dennett shows how, through evolution, you don't need god to have us humans living here and now; and by adopting the same line of thinking (otherwise known as Darwin's Dangerous Idea), you realize that you don't need other forms of god that religious people have been running away to shelter under ever since Darwin came out with his idea. I'm referring to ideas such as "god the law giver", the idea of god as an entity that set the rules according to which this world runs but then went on to retire.
God, however, is only one of the many concepts the book analyzes under Darwin's magnifying glass. There are many others, such as language and culture, morality and ethics. I will argue that Darwin's Dangerous Idea packs more ideas per page than any other book I have ever read, which is a mighty accomplishment. It's well written, so that it reads flowingly even when discussing complex ideas.
For a better overview of the ideas expressed in the book, I welcome you to watch the following video in which Richard Dawkins interviews Dennett for his documentary on Darwin, aired last year:

I do have to add that it is the book's very richness of ideas that is its bane, too. I had noticed several times that it takes me ages to finish reading a page of Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Repeated measurements have indicated I was reading the book at a rate of 12 pages an hour, which explains why it took me several months to finish reading this 520 pages long book (at least in the American edition I got through Amazon; do bear in mind that each of those pages is relatively large in size and contains more words than your average book's page). This slowness indicates to me the book is complex to digest, a hard read after all despite its flowing nature; given that I don't have that much time to dedicate to reading in the first place, perhaps Darwin's Dangerous Idea wasn't the right book for me to read at this stage of life.
Yet when the dust settles one thing is clear: The abundance of throughly discussed ideas in the book and the way they are discussed had left me a different person to the way I was before reading Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Having read the book I now look at things differently, which is perhaps the best compliment I can give it. It was a hard climb, but it was worth it.
Overall: I have had a 3 star experience out of a 4 star book, so I will rate it at 3.5 out of 4 stars overall. I do, however, clearly see how some people will want to kill me for giving it anything less than 5, while others - those whose unfounded beliefs it vaporizes - will want to give it a negative score.


Uri said...

520 pages is the longest book you've read all year? Really?

Or are you just saying it took you forever (as it would, at a page per 5 minutes)?

BTW, Doesn't the guy in the video (Dennett, or the interviewer - I don't have sound) look like Darwin?

Moshe Reuveni said...

I did read two other long books this year, The Blind Watchmaker and Demon Haunted World. I think they're shorter, page wise, and I'm sure each page of Darwin's Dangerous Idea is significantly bigger (size wise). And yes, it's to do with taking forever, too.
As for the video: Dennet is the one that looks like Santa. The interviewer is Richard Dawkins (I think I've mentioned that). All in all, it's not much good without the sound...