Daniel Dennett
Professor of Philosophy and Co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University

Daniel Dennett on the Staggering Genius of Charles Darwin

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Why Daniel Dennett applies Darwinism to everything.

Daniel Dennett

Daniel C. Dennett is the author of Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Breaking the Spell, Freedom Evolves, and Darwin's Dangerous Idea and is University Professor and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He lives with his wife in North Andover, Massachusetts, and has a daughter, a son, and a grandson. He was born in Boston in 1942, the son of a historian by the same name, and received his B.A. in philosophy from Harvard in 1963. He then went to Oxford to work with Gilbert Ryle, under whose supervision he completed the D.Phil. in philosophy in 1965. He taught at U.C. Irvine from 1965 to 1971, when he moved to Tufts, where he has taught ever since, aside from periods visiting at Harvard, Pittsburgh, Oxford, and the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.

His first book, Content and Consciousness, appeared in 1969, followed by Brainstorms (1978), Elbow Room (1984), The Intentional Stance (1987), Consciousness Explained (1991), Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), Kinds of Minds (1996), and Brainchildren: A Collection of Essays 1984-1996. Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness, was published in 2005. He co-edited The Mind's I with Douglas Hofstadter in 1981 and he is the author of over three hundred scholarly articles on various aspects on the mind, published in journals ranging from Artificial Intelligence and Behavioral and Brain Sciences to Poetics Today and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.

Dennett gave the John Locke Lectures at Oxford in 1983, the Gavin David Young Lectures at Adelaide, Australia, in 1985, and the Tanner Lecture at Michigan in 1986, among many others. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Science. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1987.

He was the Co-founder (in 1985) and Co-director of the Curricular Software Studio at Tufts, and has helped to design museum exhibits on computers for the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Science in Boston, and the Computer Museum in Boston.


Question: Why have you called Darwin a 'unifier'?

Dennett:    Darwin’s idea takes us all the way from physics and chemistry.  The world of lifeless meaningless, purposeless matter all the way to the most exalted purposes and meanings from poetry and ethics to carbon atoms all in one picture and that unifies the world and the world of inquiry and I think unlike any other idea.  Before Darwin, it was not only I think it was impossible to imagine how this gap between the living and the nonliving was really filled in and now we have a pretty good understanding of not only what the materials and the structures are but how it got that way and that’s what’s really impressive.

Question: What would Darwin think about the state of human evolution?

Dennett:    Well, I think Darwin would realize that human beings have evolved hardly at all genetically since he published his book.  What has evolved of course is our understanding of the process and that’s evolve by cultural evolution and by just the tremendous developments of science which I’m sure he would be thrilled, beyond thrilled to see how much of this process is now understood.  After all, he didn’t have the concept to the gene.  He was quite frankly baffled by how evolution could not get swamped by so called blending inheritance where everything sort of mixes together to produce mush  now we have a very clear understanding of that and he would have been thrilled by that but even, even more than a half of century after he published the origin of species, William Bateson, the great geneticist early 20th century geneticist couldn’t imagine and said it was inconceivable that what you call nuclear chromatin could be the material basis for heredity.  Well, that’s DNA.  He just couldn’t imagine how it could be cause to him that seemed homogenous under all known test.  It seemed to be just too simple.  Well, now of course we know that, that nuclear chromatin has in the case of human beings double helix molecule with 3 billion base pairs in it and it’s copied into every single cell in our body.  That’s stunning.  He couldn’t imagine that.  

Question: Is it too simplistic to apply Darwinism to everything?

Dennett:    Well, there’s simplistic ways of doing it and there’s less simplistic ways and let’s push ahead firmly and avoid the huge the over simplifications and settle for the useful over simplifications.  Of course, its’ complicated, life is complicated.  If biologist have been dissuaded by natural, naturalist people you know, if those people who’d been studying the orchid and the beaver and the honey bee, the elm tree and the perched had said, “Oh, Mr.  Darwin my species is much, much, much, much too complicated ever to be explained by your theory.  First of all, they would be wrong and yes, life is complicated.  Culture is complicated, minds are complicated but they are not so complicated that we can’t do a good analysis of what makes them complicated.