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Darwin's Dangerous Idea

reviewed by Gert Korthof,
Aug 05 1998

skyhook, orig. Aeronaut. An imaginary contrivance for attachment to the sky; an imaginary means of suspension in the sky. [Oxford English Dictionary].
"An aeroplane pilot commanded to remain in place (aloft) for another hour, replies: 'the machine is not fitted with skyhooks' " ... The skyhook concept is perhaps a descendant of the deus ex machina of ancient Greek dramaturgy: when second-rate play-wrights found their heroes into inescapable difficulties, they were often tempted to crank down a god onto the scene, like Superman, to save the situation supernaturally. ... Skyhooks would be wonderful things to have, great for lifting unwieldy objects out of difficult circumstances, and speeding up all sorts of construction projects. Sad to say, they are impossible." (p. 74).

    Dennett uses the skyhook and crane as a magnificent metaphor. Just like objects can be lifted by imaginary skyhooks or cranes, so can design originate by 'skyhooks' or 'cranes'. The 'skyhook'-explanation of design invokes the supernatural, the 'crane' explanation invokes natural processes. The 'skyhook'-explanation of design is invoked by Creationists, the 'crane' explanation is invoked by 'evolutionists'. Darwin's Dangerous Idea is that all design can be explained without skyhooks: without Mind or God. Dennett gives a good historical overview of the use of these two types of explanation.

Why this book ?
"I have found not just lay people and religious thinkers, but secular philosophers, psychologists, physicists, and even biologists who would prefer, it seems, that Darwin were wrong."(preface). Dennett aims at disbelievers, doubters, misunderstanders, thinkers who cannot conceal their discomfort with Darwin's great idea, ranging from nagging skepticism to outright hostility. So, although Dennett claims (p17,18) that he is not going to refute Creationism, because it is already done by Kitcher(1982), Futuyma(1983), Gilkey(1985) and others, Dennett often targets creationism, mostly indirectly. How could it be otherwise when he is defending Darwinism? Aren't Creationists the 'skyhook-people'?
If one wants to learn something about the dangerous idea of evolution (from a philosopher), I can recommend Dennett. Even Richard Dawkins learned something from Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Don't expect facts from a philosopher. There is no discussion of how good empirical data fit Darwin's theory. It's a book about ideas, the history of an idea, the impact of an idea, comparing and connecting ideas with each other.

Darwin's Dangerous Idea

contents "Darwin's Dangerous Idea."
by Daniel Dennett
Allen Lane The Penguin Press
586 pages
hard cover
ISBN 0-713-99090-2

Part I: Starting in the Middle
Ch 1 Tell Me Why
Ch 2 An Idea Is Born
Ch 3 Universal Acid
Ch 4 The Tree of Life
Ch 5 The possible and the Actual
Ch 6 Threads of Actuality in Design Space
Part II: Darwinian Thinking in Biology
Ch 7 Priming Darwin's Pump
Ch 8 Biology is engineering
Ch 9 Searching for Quality
Ch 10 Bully for Brontosaurus
Ch 11 Controversies Contained
Part III: Mind, Meaning, Mathematics, and Morality
Ch 12 The Cranes of Culture
Ch 13 Losing Our Minds to Darwin
CH 14 The Evolution of Meanings
Ch 15 The Emperor's New Mind, and Other Fables
Ch 16 On the Origin of Morality
Ch 17 Redesigning Morality
Ch 18 The Future of an Idea

Further Reading

  • Book review by Mark Ridley in Nature 8 June 1995, 'Here, there, everywhere'.
  • Genes, Memes & Minds a favourable review of Darwin's Dangerous Idea by John Maynard Smith, The New York Review of Books, November 30, 1995.
  • A Promise Rather Than a Threat, a pro-Dennett review by Patti H. Clayton, American Scientist, May-June 1996.
  • Dennett's Strange Idea an anti-Dennett review by H. Allen Orr in the Boston Review Summer 1996, and The Scope of Natural Selection is Dennett's defence.
  • H. Allen Orr (1996) "Dennett's Dangerous Idea". Vol. 50 February 1996 No. 1 467-472. A devastating review of Dennett's book by an evolutionary biologist. S.J. Gould agrees with Orr in this respect. See below.
  • Evolution: The Pleasures of Pluralism, a review by Stephen Jay Gould, The New York Review of Books, June 26, 1997. This is reprinted as chapter 6: "More Things in Heaven and Earth" in "Alas Poor Darwin".
  • Dennett's home page at Tufts University.
  • review by Danny Yee.
  • Daniel C. Dennett (1987) The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, MA:MIT Press.
  • Daniel C. Dennett (1992) Consciousness Explained. Back Bay Books. 528 pages.
  • Daniel C. Dennett (1997) Kinds of Minds: Towards an Understanding of Consciousness. 192 pages. Publisher: Basic Books.
  • Daniel C. Dennett (2003) Freedom Evolves. Viking Books. 352 pages.
  • Daniel C. Dennett (2005) Sweet Dreams. Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness. Hardcover: 216 pages. Publisher: The MIT Press (April 1, 2005).
  • Daniel C. Dennett (2006) Breaking the spell: Religion as a natural phenomen. Viking (Penguin). Reviews:
  • Tadeusz Zawidzki (2006) 'Dennett', One World Publications. "An insightful introduction to Dennett's thought, this work will prove invaluable to interested readers, students, and scholars alike".
  • Daniel C. Dennett (2007) The Evaporation of the Powerful Mystique of Religion.
  • Tamler Sommers and Alex Rosenberg (2003) 'Darwin's nihilistic idea: evolution and the meaninglessness of life', Biology and Philosophy 18: 653-668, 2003.
    • "In this paper we seek to show that the first fifteen chapters of Dennett's work is a case for the nihilist's prosecution, not the naturalist's defense. We will argue that chapters 16 and 17 of Darwin's Dangerous Idea do not fit within the framework of the 453 pages that precede them; nor does the thesis they defend pass Dennett's own intellectual muster."
  • Daniel C. Dennett (2009) Next: Darwin's Strange Inversion of Reasoning youtube lecture.
  • Daniel C. Dennett (2013) Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking:
    • "In this book, Dennett shares the "imagination extenders and focus-holders" that he and others have developed for addressing life's most fundamental questions. Along with novel discussions of familiar moves–Occam's Razor, reductio ad absurdum–Dennett offers cognitive tools purpose-built for the most treacherous subject matter: evolution, meaning, mind, and free will. From skyhooks to deepities, the Wandering Two-Bitser and the Prime Mammal, Dennett's genial style persuades as it educates, pointing out pitfalls in arguments as it challenges readers to find others." (publisher). Free will is compatible with determinism. Nederlandse vertaling: Gereedschapskist voor het denken (2013).
  • Daniel C. Dennett (2017) From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, Norton.
    • "Although From Bacteria to Bach and Back covers territory that Dennett has explored before, it is no mere rehash. Over the past couple of decades, many psychologists, linguists and philosophers have developed ideas that extend and deepen Dennett's contributions, and he draws on these in consolidating and refining his arguments.", review in Nature 2 Feb 2017.

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Copyright © 1998 G.Korthof First published: Aug 05 1998 Updated: 20 Feb 2001 F.R.: 5 Jun 2018