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Alan Alda in Scientific American Frontiers
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Darwin's Dangerous Idea


I think that Darwin's idea, properly used, is just the best idea anybody ever had. Abused, it can do a lot of harm.


ALDA: Why is that a dangerous idea?

DENNETT: I think that Darwin's idea, properly used, is just the best idea anybody ever had. Abused, it can do a lot of harm. So that's one of the reasons it's dangerous, but I think the more interesting reason that Darwin's idea is so dangerous is that it overturns perhaps the oldest idea that human beings have ever had; in fact, it's even older than the species, I think.

ALDA: How could an idea be older than the species?

DENNETT: Well, one of our ancestors, before homo sapiens, homo habilis, the handyman. And the handyman made tools. They were just rock axes, but they made tools. And I think that they might have thought that it always takes a big fancy thing to make a simpler thing. You never see a pot making a potter. It's always the other way around. It's big fancy things making simple dumb things. Darwin came along and said, you can turn that upside down. If you have the right sort of process and you have enough time, you can create big fancy things, even things with minds, out of processes which are individually stupid, mindless, simple. Just a whole lot of little mindless events occurring over billions of years can create not just order, but design, not just design, but minds, eyes and brains.

ALDA: I can see how that's a revolutionary idea. Why is it dangerous?

DENNETT: Because a lot of people believe, and not foolishly, that if that's true then somehow life has no meaning. They're afraid that their own lives won't mean anything, that morality will evaporate, that the whole pageant of human existence somehow depends on not giving up this sort of top down idea.

ALDA: And yet there's this process that it relies on, which seems to be as great and supervising a power, in a way, as the old handyman's idea was.


The whole process of natural selection is itself wonderful. But it is composed of elements that are themselves mindless.

 

DENNETT: Well, you can't get something for nothing. Design is expensive. There are costs to developing something wonderful, and what Darwin saw was that those costs could be distributed over billions of years, and all you needed was this one little ratchet of Darwinism, which is, when you get a little bit of good design, you hang onto it. That's the principle of natural selection. The whole process of natural selection is itself wonderful. It has to be wonderful because it makes wonderful products. But it is composed of elements that are themselves mindless, just little patterns of order in the universe that makes this possible.

ALDA: Do you suppose some people feel that there's a lack of purpose to life if life is only the way Darwin describes it?

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