Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution And The Meanings Of Life

1002 words - 4 pages

Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life

Science can give us as good a moral code as any religion. Or so Daniel Dennett claims in his book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Dennett provides the tools to explain human morality, and inadvertently leads the way to the conclusion (which he does not share) that science can clarify how human morality came about, but not serve as a substitute or model for moral codes, religious and secular alike.

It all begins with Dennett's assertion that everything- everything- is a product of an algorithmic process, which comes about as a result of random change. By definition these algorithmic processes, evolution included, are "matter first". Dennett uses a metaphor of "cranes"; that new changes in species or anything else are made possible by what already existed in the material world. When speaking about life it is also usefully explained by considering adaptation to be, in practice, exaptation. Nothing in the Darwinian story of the world suggests that anything about better or worse, or for that matter, good and evil.

This is the main point commonly used to dispel notions of Social Darwinism. But it, in my mind, is not sufficient. A few people are doing better in the world than others, and it is not because they are better than the others, or that the others are inferior, it just happened that way because of social circumstances. It has nothing to do with biology. So what! Science here offers no ethical insight; it only prompts indifference. Even if Darwinism is no justification for social injustice, it does nothing to suggest that there is an urgent need for social change. At worst, if one does not take away from this a warning not to mix ideas about society and biology lightly, it might lead one to think that social circumstances are just another random difference that exists within all populations; therefore it is still fair game to better one's circumstances even further with them. Consider it exaptation.

Can altruism- true altruism, not altruism among kin, not reciprocal altruism, but the fabled Good Samaritan altruism, exist as a product of evolution? There is no clear evolutionary advantage to helping those in the "out-group" that deals strictly with biology (which is not to say that there are not brands of altruism for which there is an evolutionary advantage). Those who accept only matter-first explanations of the world may be likely to argue that people do not, in fact, commit purely selfless acts. Others, including Mayr, allow that Good Samaritan-style altruism exists, but only as a product of culture. It would be hard to find an evolutionary advantage to many products of culture. Take monogamous males for an example. Of course there are plenty of them out there, just as there are plenty of people who commit acts of true altruism, but like altruism, monogamy is hardly the rule. While the question of altruism is by all means...

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