Know any Evolution books?

golem at golem at
Fri Jan 12 18:51:57 EST 1996

>   rkliman at (Richard M Kliman) writes:
>  In article <4cjf45$5pe at>,  <golem at> wrote:
>  >>   gmills at (Stephen Mills) writes:
>  >>  
>  >>  Has anyone read "Darwins Dangerous Idea"  by Daniel C. Dennet yet.  I
>  >>  was wondering if I should take the time.
>  >>  
>  >>  Stephen Mills
>  >
>  >Not really. After his success with "consiousness explaines" he got a $ 
>  advance for this 
>  >one. The first chapter is good history, good quotes. The rest is inconsistent 
>  and shows his lack of 
>  >knowledge and understanding of biology. Being a computer guy, he ignores the 
>  beautiful 
>  >complexity of nature, roles of contingency and chance in evolution and wants 
>  to make everything 
>  >clean and neat and reducible to formulas and algorithms.
>      <<deleted section>>
>  >   Bora Zivkovic, NCSU
>  It would seem that Bora didn't like the book.  However, I don't think 
>  his review was particularly useful to the original poster.  Personally, 
>  I disagree with his assessment of "Darwin's Dangerous Idea."  The first 
>  part of the book was, IMHO, a well written discussion of basic evolutionary 
>  theory.  While Dennett *does* spend a good deal of time discussing 
>  algorithmic processes, he also makes it quite clear that algorithms do 
>  not necessarily predict exact results.  It did not appear to me that 
>  Dennett ignores chance in evolution; in fact, in his discussion of 
>  algorithmic processes, chance is far from ignored.
>       I found the "dangerous idea" part of the book to be especially 
>  thought-provoking.  The dangerous idea wasn't what I originally expected - 
>  though I haven't read Dennett's earlier work, which might have tipped me off.
>       I never found Dennett to be lacking in knowledge of Biology.  I 
>  certainly wouldn't make this accusation on the basis of reading the 
>  (whole) book (slowly and carefully).  In fact, after reading the book, it 
>  struck me that an interesting course could be centered on "Darwin's 
>  Dangerous Idea" and Weiner's "The Beak of the Finch."  This wouldn't 
>  replace a comprehensive Evolution course for biology majors or graduate
>  students, but, then again, these books weren't really written for that 
>  purpose, were they?
>       Anyway, to the original poster: what's the harm in reading the 
>  book?  It takes a while, but it probably won't be wasted time.
>  Rich Kliman
>  Dept. of Biology
>  Radford University
      I guess you are right. For somebody new to the field or previously uninterested in the topic, or 
even toying with creationist ideas, this book can provide a powerful argument to accept evolution 
as a fact and to promote further reading. The book is written in a superb and gripping style, so its 
length is not a deterrent.
      If one wants to introduce somebody to evolution, one should definitely look for a captivating 
reading to offer. And for that, Dennet is great. But I would personally choose Gould for a couple of 
reasons. First, Gould's errors are much less detrimental to the proper understanding of evolution 
than Dennet, Dawkins or E.O.Wilson, to name a couple of other great writers. Second, Gould, 
being a historian of science, teaches his readers how to properly approach other people's literature 
,  thus developing critical reading skills which provide the reader with tools to read, analyze and 
criticize other literature, enabling them to find the logical and other errors even in such brilliantly well 
written books as those written by Dennet, Dawkins and Wilson, and ultimately to come back and 
find Gould's errors, too.
       For somebody who is already well versed in evolutionary theory, Dennet's book provides a 
tough and useful training tool. Dennet skillfully leads his reader from one argument to the next, 
always providing an obviously logical connection that makes each argument's correctness depend 
on the truth of the previous one. His writing method feels like an algorhytm itself. At the end of 
each chapter, this chain of logical reasoning ends with the final argument that just doesn't sound 
right. So, you retrace your (his) steps to analyze the logic once again, and you invariably come up 
with one or more connections that are not so 'obviously logical' after all. When you correct for it, 
the final conclusion is very different from his. This is the reason I would use this book in a 
'discussion group'-type graduate course as a tool for sharpening the students' critical skills, since 
finding fault in his work is much harder than debunking the creatinonists' crap.
       Also, his chapter that criticizes Gould is the weakest in the book, since he abandons his 
logical chain of arguments and proceeds with pure name-calling. This chapter does not need 
re-reading - everything is obvious the first time around. The most curious notion here is that Gould 
and Kauffman are opposites, with Kauffman being on the 'good'(Dennet's) side, and Gould on the 
other extreme. I read all three of them and understand that on the continuum of 
determinism/indeterminism, on one extreme are the complete indeterminists (like those that propose 
extraterrestrial origin of life on Earth), and on the other complete determinists that claim that one 
mechanism (natural selection) or another(god) inevitably leads to smart humans. Even Dawkins is 
not that extreme any more, but Dennet is a newcomer and still naive, so he now occupies the most 
extreme spot on the line. Both Gould and Kauffman are in the middle, agreeing fully with Darwin's 
ideas about roles of natural selection, chance, contingency and self-organization (only implied, but 
not explicitly dealt with by Darwin, hence his refusal to discuss the origin of life, being aware of his 
inability to say much about the principles of underlying organization on which natural selsection can 
work upon). Gould and Kauffman have different research programs so they tend to stress one of 
this factors more than the other, but, if one analyzes all of their writing, it becomes obvious that 
their views of relative importance of these factors are very close, while Dennet is far away from 
them. I guess that Dennet just cannot accept the low probability of his own fortuitious birth implied 
by Gould's insistence on chance and contingency, and that he just did not understand Kauffman 
who suggests not that the evolution of smart humans is inevitable, but that the laws of 
self-organization make it more probable (than what we used to think) for some organism to evolve 
some sort of intelligence, period.
     Again, use the Gould's "divine disc jockey" test. If the tape of life is replayed a million times, 
Gould will hardly ever find smart humans, but occasionally some other kind of intelligent life, usually 
some sort of complex life, and occasionally no life at all. Kauffman would expect life every time, 
complex life almost every time, intelligent life quite often, and intelligent humans very rarely. Dennet 
will find himself again. No matter how much he declares that he is counting in the role of chance, 
his final conclusion shows that chance has no cnance in his world.
    { Another way to word the test about somebody's understanding of evolution is to ask what 
would one expect to find on a million planets that are geophysically similar to Earth. That is a neat 
way to test the sf writers (or different generations of Star Trek). Some send their heroes to different 
worlds where they find intelligent ( or nonintelligent) stones, blobs, wifs of smoke, amoeboids, 
walking trees etc. Others go to hundreds of planets and always find - Nazis! How would Dennet 
write sf?}
    So read it, and read it slowly, carefully and with your critical antennae ready. Have fun.

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