From Bacteria to Bach and Back

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In this frustrating yet fascinating book, philosopher Daniel Dennett sets out to explain the emergence of human consciousness. And though it draws on recent research into computing, palaeontology and cellular biology, its polemic takes our understanding of evolution backwards.

Dennett builds primarily on the model developed by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, and rejects that of its critics such as Stephen J Gould and Richard Lewontin. When Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, his theory of natural selection was explosive because it showed how life’s diversity and complexity were possible without a “designer”.

Dennett chides Karl Marx for saying this “dealt a death-blow” to “teleology” in science. Teleology means explaining processes in terms of their purpose not their causes. In its extreme form it means science — which can only examine causes — can be overruled by religious authority about God’s purposes. But for Dennett, while Darwin killed religious teleology, he left room for a secular one. He says “reasons without reasoners” and “flee-floating rationales” drive evolution’s “design” and “R&D”.

So what, if not God, does the designing? Dawkins had one answer. Considering evolution “from the gene’s point of view” let him abstract it away from the concrete, tangled history of the living world. Natural selection was not about an organism’s struggle to survive, but its genes’ struggle to be reproduced.

It was such a powerful metaphor that Dawkins extended it into explaining human culture too. Forms of behaviour — from words and fashions to technologies and ideologies — seek to reproduce themselves through us. Human history is a playing out of competition between these “memes”.

Dennett runs with this theme to explain consciousness too, sometimes in a genuinely thought-provoking way. The evolution of language is an arms race between words and the brain — a “market economy” of competing neurons. But Dawkins’ insight was always one-sided at best.

Evolution, like history, is too messy for teleology. There are disasters. A species can adapt to conditions that then radically change in ways genes couldn’t have “predicted”. And there are opportunities. The hands that made humanity possible aren’t the fruit of a quest for dexterity, but a side-effect of walking upright. QWERTY keyboard layouts suited typewriters whose unreliability required slow typing. If you reverse-engineered a keyboard from the needs of today’s typists it would look very different.

Dennett sees such examples as the “noise” that ultimately gets cancelled out and those who, like Gould and Lewontin, say otherwise as softies who are scared of science. Yet they developed their own view to solve a scientific problem — that the then-prevailing view of evolution didn’t fit the fossil record, particularly its mass extinctions.

Part of the debate is about gradualism. Dennett and Dawkins see evolution and development as slow, continuous affairs. The real picture is of breakthroughs and catastrophes. Genes are vital to understand evolution, but so are contingent historical and environmental factors.

Trying to explain the rise and fall of human institutions through competing ideas alone is part of how Dawkins came to his crude hatred of religion — seen as a harmful meme infecting people. It suits the ruling class in any society to show that things are “meant” to be the way they are. They are rarely short of thinkers willing to lazily take the idea up.

Under Dennett’s pompous writing there’s much of interest in his book. But his post-Darwin teleology is ultimately as backward as those hipsters who recreate “churches without religion”.