Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Chapter 3




In this chapter, Dennett tackles the “issue” of apparent design in nature in a world where nothing is actually designed. There is a prima facie assumption that, on naturalism, the whole notion of design has to be discarded. That assumes of course that by design one means a process or act involving teleology or goal directed behavior. The classical notion of design as an explanatory device going as far back as Aristotle is meant describe what something is for. So there is a prima facie conflict between naturalism and design, apparent or otherwise.

In addressing apparent design in the natural world, Dennett, cleverly, does not attempt to say that there is no design in the world. Rather, he says there absolutely is but that the design is not due to Mind. Instead of arguing against the intuition that there is design in the world, he simply moves the locus of the problem to address the intuition that design needs to be caused by Mind. Dennett claims that Darwin’s suggestion was that redesign clearly happens without Mind and so the logical link to the notion that design itself could happen without Mind shouldn’t be too much of a leap.

Dennett states that Darwin’s theory does start with order. That is, the theory begins with some givens. One is that there is a world with natural laws that govern it. He attempts to describe his theory without demanding an underlying metaphysical teleology. Dennett clearly says that order is not teleology and to conflate the two is an error. “…Darwin suggests a division: Give me Order he says, and time, and I will give you Design. Let me start with regularity–the mere purposeless, mindless, pointless regularity of physics–and I will show you a process that eventually will yield products that exhibit not just regularity but purposive design.” (65)

Instead of Darwin’s design starting with mind and ending up with mindless physics, Darwin’s theory starts with mindless physics and ends up with mind. The unintelligent created the intelligent on Darwin’s theory. And why not asks Dennett.

“Why couldn’t the most important thing of all be something that arose from unimportant things? Darwin’s inversion suggests that we abandon that presumption and look for sorts of excellence, of worth and purpose, that can emerge, bubbling up out of “mindless, purposeless forces.” (66)

On an initial read, it seems that Dennett is saying that mind or intelligence is more important and has a greater degree of excellence than purposeless physics. Now if Dennett simply means that we humans tend to apply greater value to intelligence and tend to view intelligence as possessing a greater degree of excellence as a mere subjective psychological construct then he avoids the metaphysical problem. But if Dennett means that intelligence is more valuable or more excellent as a real property of the things that possess it (where A would be more excellent than B even if no one was around to think so–one might say it possesses an analytic excellence or importance based on the definition of the term excellent and important), then his exegesis will need more by way of explanatory power. Again, how, on naturalism, can one make sense of the ideas of real value or real excellence? There doesn’t seem to be any non-question begging way to define these terms.

Darwin and Design

Dennett then goes on to give an account of design in Darwinian terms. In doing so, he purposefully (no pun intended) goes off the Aristotelian metaphysics to (ostensibly) describe design in terms that are consistent with naturalism and Darwinian natural selection.

First, he grants the argument from design by agreeing that if one encounters a designed thing (which he defines as “a living thing or part of a living thing or the artifact of a living thing, organized in any case in aid of this battle against disorder.” (69)) then one must agree that this thing includes as a part of its etiology a tremendous amount of work done. This is all he’s willing to grant. He invokes Paley’s famous argument and seems to say this is what Paley’s argument was about. The design argument was about the R&D needed to produce the product in question and the essence of R&D is work or effort or time and energy. (68)

Of course, this isn’t the essence of Paley’s argument. Rather, Paley’s point was that design seems to demand teleology or Mind not just work. It was certainly consistent with Paley’s argument to hold that a watch found in the wilderness could have been instantly created by a watchmaker but it could not have been created without a watchmaker even if there was a tremendous amount of work done by a non-watchmaker. Paley saw that design appeared to demand an artificer that pursued a distant goal and took creative steps to see that goal to fruition. The watchmaker tried to accomplish something: i.e. a device that provides information about the relative position of the sun at any given moment in a day. This is Aristotle’s central notion with regards to design and it was harnessed by Paley. So either Dennett has something else in mind here or he misses Paley’s very important point. At the very least, this gloss on Paley needs further explanation.

Dennett then takes this new idea of design (organization that comes from time and effort) and claims that what Darwin discovered was that design could occur without an intelligence.

“What Darwin saw was that in principle, the same work could be done by a different sort of process that distributed that work over huge amounts of time, by thriftily conserving the design work that had been accomplished at each stage, so that it didn’t have to be done again.” (68)

“Darwin offered an explanatory path that actually honored Paley’s insight: real work went into designing this watch, and the work isn’t free.” (71) (On page 71, Dennett adds a small polemic against Locke’s “mind first” proposal that includes Hume’s critique of the infinite regress problem that arises when invoking God as a first cause: who created God? But this sophomoric tangent is unfortunate as it adds very little to Dennett’s argument.)

“…The Principle of Accumulation of Design…says that since each new designed thing that appears must have a large design investment in its etiology somewhere, the cheapest hypothesis will always be that the design is largely copied from earlier designs, which are copied from earlier designs and so forth.” (72)

Dennett glosses over what clearly is the heart of the matter: what is driving the direction of the work being done and towards what, if any, goal? Asking this question could be considered question begging in that I’m assuming that design involves teleology and asking Dennett to provide an account of it while Dennett is saying design doesn’t involve teleology and so an account of it is unnecessary. But that the essence of design is teleology was Paley’s point and it appears to me Dennett appears to beg off on the burden of proof here by simply ignoring this difficulty. There are lots of examples of a tremendous amount of work being done over time without anything of “importance and purpose” being created. Rivers wearing away rocks and mud to create canyons or billions of stars constantly undergoing change doing a tremendous amount of work over millions of years are “doing work” consistent with Dennett’s definition but the systems that drive these phenomena seem to destroy rather than create (of course we can see purpose in these systems but not purposes consistent with Dennett’s use of the term). If Dennett is going to ad hoc assert that the systems that drive living organisms undergo similar work but create instead of destroy, he’s got to explain why these systems are different.

Interestingly, Dennett appears aware of this difficulty and on page 69 attempts to address it. His solution is captured in a single phrase, “not being isolated.” The phrase appears in the context of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and Dennett claims that the Law appears to predict that systems will move from order to disorder which is uncontroversial. He then asks, “What, then, are living things? They are things that defy this crumbling into dust, at least for a while, by not being isolated–by taking in from their environment the wherewithal to keep life and limb together.” And that’s it. That’s the extent to which he attempts to explain why living organisms don’t succumb to the law of entropy. Even on a chartable reading, this seems far from adequate.

An easy way out of this is to claim that the book is not intended to address these types of cosmological issues and to deal with the mechanisms with order as the starting point (Dennett says something along these lines on 62 and 63). But if he’s not going to spend any time addressing this significant explanatory hole, then he also shouldn’t make such conclusive claims that Darwinian evolution demands naturalism. If he’s going to make that claim, then he shouldn’t gloss over details that seem inconsistent with this claim. It seems the book would be much stronger if Dennett left the naturalism conclusions out and just dealt with evolutionary theory. To address both adequately seems like a tall order to fill.

Skyhooks and Cranes

Dennett then launches into a discussion of the mechanism of design. One has to give Dennett credit for attempting, by sheer brute force, to overcome the intuitions and historical understanding of design and to replace it with his own version. He writes in a courageous passage,

“It seems to skeptics…that there is something willfully paradoxical in calling the process of evolution the ‘blind watchmaker’ for this takes away with the left hand (‘blind’), the very discernment, purpose, and foresight it gives with the right hand. But others see that this manner of speaking–and we shall find that it is not just ubiquitous but irreplaceable in contemporary biology–is just the right way to express the myriads of detailed discoveries [sic] that Darwinian theory helps to expose. There is simply no denying the breathtaking brilliance of the designs to be found in nature. Time and again, biologists baffled by some apparently futile or maladroit bit of bad design in nature have eventually come to see that they have underestimated the ingenuity, the sheer brilliance, the depth of insight to be discovered in one of Mother Nature’s creations.” (74)

Dennett not only does not try to avoid the language of “intelligent design,” he rushes to the opposite side and uses “intelligent design” superlatives to describe what natural selection is. So Dennett obviously isn’t satisfied with attempts to describe natural selection in bland, non-purposive terms. Yet he also doesn’t want purpose in his ontology. It seems that Dennett has set himself between the Scylla of being incoherent and the Charybdis of articulating a theory of evolution that’s totally consistent with versions of non-naturalism. If he wants to use this language, what he has to do is argue (1) how design works without purpose (the burden I laid out above) (2) why this design demands naturalism–that is, why naturalism is a necessary condition for natural selection. I think (2) is beyond the scope of the book and I don’t think he’s even hinted at how he’s going to solve (1) thus far.

The closest he gets to an explanation of his notion of design is in his discussion of skyhooks and cranes. Skyhooks, he explains, are sort of top-down explanations that invoke deity-based explanations when natural ones won’t seem to do–a sort of God-of-the-gaps explanatory device. Cranes, on the other hand, are bottom-up explanations. What Dennett means by this is that such explanations provide descriptions of the state of a thing in terms of natural, small, incremental steps that occur in existing entities or systems. No “intrusion” from the outside (above) need to take place.

Just So Story

Dennett then launches into a brief explanation of how cranes work or supposedly have worked in the process of evolution. What his “explanation” ends up being is a very soft just so story that uses the language of teleology but doesn’t do enough to show why we shouldn’t continue to fit that language in the old model of teleology-cum-mind. Here are some fairly loose ideas that Dennett just presents as possibly occurring without giving any evidence whatsoever that it in fact did occur this way or providing a philosophical ground for the model.

“Consider a population of a species in which there is a considerable variation at birth in the way their brains are wired up. Just one of the ways we may suppose, endows its possessor with a Good Trick–a behavioral talent that protects it or enhances its chances dramatically.” (77)

So the idea here is that a small variation in the genetic makeup of a single, individual organism enhances its ability to survive. This “Good Trick” ostensibly is some genetic mutation that occurs that is both positive and permanent (in the sense that there will be some way for this mutation to be passed down). What Dennett doesn’t tell us is where this mutation comes from (why does the mutation occur particularly given the algorithmic model we’re working under?), why the trick is good (what does “good” mean on naturalism?) and what is the mechanism by which this mutation is passed along to offspring? Dennett’s story attempts to tackle the last problem but I’m not sure how successful he is.

“Only one wiring is favored; the others, no matter how ‘close’ to being the good wiring, are about equal in fitness.” (77)

“Suppose, then, that these organisms can end up, after exploration, with a design different from the one they were born with. We may suppose their explorations are random, but they have an innate capacity to recognize (and stay with) a Good Trick when they stumble upon it. (78)

“The way I have just described the Baldwin Effect certainly keeps Mind to a minimum, if not altogether out of the picture; all it requires is some brute, mechanical capacity to stop a random walk when a Good Thing comes along, a minimal capacity to ‘recognize’ a tiny bit of progress, to ‘learn’ something by trial and error.” (78-79)

darwin-and-design-image This is all well and good and Dennett tells a nice story here. But he gives absolutely no reason to think it’s true. The other very important factor is that the story he tells here certainly does not demand naturalism and, in fact, makes much more sense if mind were a part of the picture. After all, he uses the language of intentionality and mind yet he wants to conclude that the evolutionary process cannot include intentionality and mind. Dennett seems to start out with his naturalism and interprets the world in light of it instead of giving us good reason to think his naturalism is true. For other interesting problems with this project, see Michael Ruse’s excellent Darwin and Design.

I want to emphasize that Dennett is not talking at all about the evidence for evolution. He’s giving a case for the underlying mechanisms that drive evolution. He assumes the evidence for evolution exists and he’s describing what processes and mechanisms provide the foundation for it. Of course this is to be expected as a philosopher but the point is that Dennett’s story is not about evolution per se but about naturalism. That’s key.


The section in this chapter on reductionism is very good and important for Dennett’s case. He makes a very good and important distinction between what he calls “bland” and “preposterous” readings of any scientific discipline in the sciences. Reductionists attempt to reduce all the sciences to their most basic elements: “After all, societies [social science] are composed of human beings, who, as mammals, must fall under the principles of biology that cover all mammals. Mammals in turn, are composed of molecules, which must obey the laws of chemistry, which in turn must answer to the regularities of the underlying physics.

On a “bland” reading, all the “higher level” disciplines are reduced to descriptions involving the lower level disciplines such that we would describe biology in terms of the lowest level physics. While Dennett doesn’t deny that the bland reading has a place, he doesn’t agree with the move to abandon the higher level language of biology and chemistry and replace it with the language of the lower level disciplines. This move involves what he calls “preposterous readings.” What Dennett wants is what he calls a “good reductionism” that doesn’t “explain away the Minds and Purposes and Meanings that we all hold dear” but “would leave them still standing but just demystified, unified, placed on more secure foundations.” (82). This is critical for Dennett and allows him to avoid the criticism I’ve been leveling that naturalism can’t support talk of intentionality, design, teleology, and axiology.

Dennett’s version of reductionism will allow him to use the language of these ideas without having to support the mind-based ontology that typically has been associated with these ideas. But so far, particularly in this chapter, Dennett hasn’t given any good reason to abandon a mind-based ontology. So far, he’s just told an interesting just so story that uses mind-based language in a relatively loose naturalistic ontology.



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