Philosopher Dennett recasts Darwin’s legacy

dennett for real“Competence without comprehension” was the mantra on Thursday at a lecture given by Daniel Dennett, professor of philosophy at Tufts University. His talk, titled “Darwin and the Evolution of Reasons,” shed new light on the work and legacy of Charles Darwin and was the annual Richmond lecture sponsored by the Oakley Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Michael Brown, professor of anthropology and director of the Oakley Center, introduced Dennett to a packed Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall.

Dennett began by discussing the classic dilemma of creationism versus natural selection. He said people were apt to believe the former because of how obvious the solution was. Since prehistoric times, people have been driven to believe more complex beings create the lesser ones. For example, he said, “You never see a pot making a potter.” Yet he argued that Darwin’s innately counterintuitive idea “united the world of purposeless causation with the world of meaning.”

To clarify his statement, Dennett compared Darwin’s thoughts to Alan Turing’s invention: the computer. Just as Turing recognized that it wasn’t necessary for computers to understand the reasons behind their computations, Darwin believed it was not necessary for a higher being with reason to execute evolution. “We can, in fact, build comprehension out of competence, instead of the other way around,” Dennett said. Evolution, in essence, was a process driven by nature and not by reason – though in the end, it looked as though there had been a plan in mind all along.

Dennett went on to put forth a chess hoax as an example of humans searching for reason. In the late 18th century, Wolfgang von Kempelen’s Turk, a chess playing “machine,” inexplicably beat some of the greatest chess players in Europe. People suspected a hoax, but it was not until Edgar Allen Poe came into possession of the Turk that the trick was revealed: All along, the owner had hired a chess player to sit inside the “machine” within hidden compartments. Dennett made the point that Poe was driven in his quest by an absolute conviction that “it was impossible for a mindless machine to play chess.” Dennett paused, and then said, “It isn’t.” Dennett made it clear that Poe’s thinking is outdated today, and let the audience draw the conclusion that similarly, so is creationism.

Turning back to the topic of “competence without comprehension,” Dennett drew on organisms that mindlessly follow their instincts due to natural evolution. An amoeba, for example, builds homes (which Dennett called sandcastles) as purposefully as children playing on a beach. Yet the amoeba has no nervous system, no possible way to think or process information.

Dennett said, “Some people don’t like that idea that reasons aren’t in a mind. But what we see in the natural world is this stupendous, myriad evidence of reasons: reasons why wings are the shape they are, reasons why little molecular engines are the way they are, there are reasons everywhere we look. But the trouble is, or the beauty is, that those reasons – until they’re articulated by biologists, by reverse engineers who figure them out – they’re not represented anywhere.” The cuckoo chick that pushes the other eggs out of the nest, he said, remains unaware of the reasons behind his survival instincts.

A common error humans make, according to Dennett, is attributing more reason than need be. He used the parallel of cultural evolution to illustrate this error. While some people claim culture was created by “divine gifts” or “human genius,” it was simply created gradually over the centuries. Nobody invented words, or art, or music. They attained their beauty and meaning by evolving over time. Demand determined which cultural advances remained, and natural selection determined which species survived. But, Dennett said, once the human race has become complex enough to analyze and appreciate culture, then we begin creating culture in a “top-down pattern” – with meaning behind the products.

Dennett concluded with an anecdote about a time when a fellow scientist challenged him to create an acronym for the word “Darwin,” the same way “fish” in Greek is an acronym for a Christian phrase. He came up with a Latin phrase of his own, “Delere Auctorem Rerum Ut Universum Infinitum Noscas” (using two “u”s to replace the w, as in Latin there is no “w”), which means, “destroy the author of things in order to know the universe.”