Dan Dennett - Darwin's Dangerous Idea

I’ve just uploaded this to bookcrossing.com , if you want it - get in touch. I said I would start to do brief reviews for all the books I read (especially as I intend to release most of them on bookcrossing) so here is this one (also on goodreads.com)

Dan Dennett is one author who has genuinely changed my view of the word. Till I read a wonderful short piece by him called “Where am I?” I had written off philosophy and took the view “if you want to know how the mind works, ask a neuroscientist”. Dan is remarkably lucid on philosophy of mind, free will and evolution. He is both an “intellectual plumber” –doing that work that the best philosophers do, patching leaks in peoples thinking– and a great communicator - understanding, consolidating and enthusiastically passing on knowledge in a field not his main expertise (not that you would notice without him owning up frequently).

This is the second in a sequence: Consciousness Explained, Darwins Dangerous Idea and Freedom Evolves. These, along with his earlier works Elbow Room and The Intentional Stance are a superbly compelling explanation of how we come to have free will without any mysterian views about how special consciousness in the species Homo Sapien Sapien must be and accepting that we live in a deterministic universe.

This book in particular is a very good survey of modern evolutionary theory, not the ideal first book but great if you are familiar with the topic. He is a believer in the neo-darwinian synthesis perhaps best espoused by Richard Dawkins. He takes as his central metaphor the difference between cranes (just doing some lifting obeying the laws of physics, however complex they are) and sky hooks (magical lifting devices that do not permit/require explanation). Along the way he rebuts Stephen Jay Gould’s attempts to cast himself as the leader of some revolution or other in biology, Roger Penroses misuse of Godels theorem to link two mysteries together (quantum indeterminacy and consciousness) and does a defence of a meme-based approach to culture. All in all a superb, if somewhat challenging, book.

As an aside, one of the really great things about Dennett is the range and number of citations. He must read nearly all of the relevant literature and makes wonderful use of literary and philosophical references as well - it was a Dennett reference that first brought Jorge Luis Borges to my attention and encouraged me to learn more about David Hume.

A superb book, I recommend it for all with some familiarity with the theory of evolution in it’s modern form who are ready to explore some of its subtleties and prepare themselves for Freedom Evolves.