Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett is relentless in his (book length) assertion that the design elements inherent in the evolution of diverse organisms are the result of a simple algorithm rather than some kind of divine intervention. He calls this “ Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.” The algorithm of Natural Selection assumes variation, heredity or replication and differential fitness. Dennett (1995: 185) refers to this "the ultimate bootstrapping trick." He argues that the world:
creates itself ex nihilo, or at any rate out of something that is well-nigh indistinguishable from nothing at all.. Unlike the puzzlingly mysterious, timeless self-creation of God, this self-creation is a non-miraculous stunt that has left lots of traces.
Dennett (1995: 412) provides compelling argument which culminates in a radical position that embraces the notion of "gradual emergence of meaning" from a "cascade of mere purposeless, mechanical causes." He (1995: 73) agrees with Ukrainian geneticist biologist, Theodore Dobzhansky, who described the Natural Selection algorithm as “blind, mechanical, automatic [and] impersonal.” According to Dennett (1995: 50-51), the three key features of any algorithm are its “substrate neutrality,” “underlying mindlessness” and “guaranteed results.” In Dennett’s words:
Although the overall design of the procedure may be brilliant, or yield brilliant results, each constituent step, as well as the transition between steps, is utterly simple.
“Give me order… and time, and I will give you Design,” are the audacious words that Dennett attaches to Darwin. He (1995: 59, 73) reminds us that:
It is hard to believe that something as mindless and mechanical as an algorithm could produce such wonderful things. No matter how impressive the products of an algorithm, the underlying process always consists of nothing but a set of individually mindless steps succeeding each other without the help of intelligent supervision: they are “automatic” by definition: the workings of an automaton.
Dennet, Daniel C. (1995) Darwin 's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Touchstone, New York.
DANIEL C. DENNETT
American Philospher of Mind, Cognition and Evolutionary Biology [1942- ]
Richmond , George (1840) The Young Charles Darwin. Watercolor on paper. C. Warren Irvin, Jr. Collection, University of South Carolina
Here is the original description of the Natural Selection algorithm by Charles Darwin (1859: 127):
If, during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organization, and I think this cannot be disputed; if there be, owing to the high geometric powers of increase of each species, at some age, season or year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite variety in structure, constitution, and habits, to be advantageous to them, I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being’s own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man. But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterized will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterized. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.
Darwin, Charles (1859)On the Origin of Species in From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin. Edited, with introductions, by Edward O. Wilson. W. W. Norton & Company. New York, 2006.
Sketch of an evolutionary tree from one of Darwin's early notebooks.
THE ORIGINS OF AGENCY AND MEANING
Dennett (1995: 252) stresses the importance of the “realization that agents make a fundamental difference to the complexity of the world.” He is determined (1995: 205) that:
Intentionality doesn’t come from up high; it percolates up from below, from the initially mindless and pointless algorithmic processes that gradually acquire meaning and intelligence as they develop.
Dennett points to (1995: 412, 426) the “gradual emergence of meaning” which is “none the less real for being the effect of millions of years of mindless, algorithmic… [research and development] instead of a gift from on high.” He characterizes (1995: 520) design work as that:
wonderful wedding of chance and necessity, happening in a trillion places at once, at a trillion different levels. And what miracle caused it? None. It just happened to happen in the fullness of time… the tree of life created itself. Not in a miraculous, instantaneous whoosh, but slowly, slowly over billions of years.
CRANES AND SKYHOOKS
Dennett stresses (1995: 76) that processes of nature are mindless and lacking in foresight. Although, "she has managed to create beings... who do have foresight." The alternative would be to allow "skyhooks." For Dennett "skyhooks" are deus ex machina devices synonymous with divine intervention. Dennett contrasts this “mind first” power or procesw with "cranes" which "permit the local speeding up of the basic, slow process of natural selection." A self-referential property of cranes is that they are themselves "the predictable (or retrospectively explicable) product" of an utterly mindless and contingent process.
Dennet, Daniel C. (1995) Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Touchstone, New York.
THE BLIND WATCHMAKER
Richard Dawkins celebrated “blind watchmaker” metaphor implies an unseeing, groping in the dark. It evokes powerfully the Darwinian algorithm. We might assume that this watchmaker is an anonymous personage who bears a nagging family resemblance to an intelligent creator. Dawkins (1986) quickly shatters this misconception:
Paley's argument is made with passionate sincerity and is informed by the best biological scholarship of the day, but it is wrong, gloriously and utterly wrong. The analogy between telescope and eye, between watch and living organism, is false. All appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind force of physics, albeit deplored in a special way. A true watchmaker has foresight: he designs his cogs and springs, and plans their interconnections, with a future purpose in his mind's eye. Natural selection, the blind unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind's eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.
Dawkins, Richard (1986) The Blind Watchmaker. Penguin. New York.
British Evolutionary Biologist [1941- ]