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Daniel Dennett: Darwinian Natural Selection


Q: Tell us about this "dangerous idea" of Darwin's.

A: I think Darwin's idea of natural selection is the best idea anybody ever had, ahead of Newton, ahead of Einstein. What it does is it promises to unite the two most disparate features of all of reality. On the one side, purposeless matter and motion, jostling particles; on the other side, meaning, purpose, design.

Before Darwin these were completely separate realms. After Darwin we can see how they all fit together into a single big picture.

Q: So why is it dangerous?

A: Darwin's idea of natural selection makes people uncomfortable because it reverses the direction of tradition. Whereas people used to think of meaning coming from on high and being ordained from the top down, now we have Darwin saying, "No, all of this design can happen, all of this purpose can emerge from the bottom up without any direction at all." And that's a very unsettling thought for many people.

Q: Why do some people find it threatening?

A: Well, does natural selection apply to human beings, too? Of course, Darwin has to say yes. And this is very unsettling because tradition has it that we are made in God's image, that we are ourselves creators, artifices, we're modeled on God, the Creator, the artificer.

And if Darwin is right, then we become just another effect. No longer a cause, no longer an author, but just another place where natural selection has its way in the natural world. I think many people are terribly afraid of being demoted by the Darwinian scheme from the role of authors and creators in their own right into being just places where things happen in the universe. That's deeply unsettling.

Q: Is it also unsettling to think of ourselves as "just animals"? It leaves us struggling for a reason to behave as moral beings.

A: For more than a century, people have often thought that the conclusion to draw from Darwin's vision is that Homo sapiens, our species -- and we're just animals, too, we're just mammals -- that there is nothing morally special about us. I myself don't think this follows at all from Darwin's vision, but it is certainly the received view in many quarters.

In fact, I think that what one can see from a Darwinian account is how the addition of culture in our species turns us into a very special sort of animal, an animal that can be a moral agent in a way that no other animal can be.

Q: What do you think is the most widely misunderstood aspect of natural selection?

A: I think the mistake that many people make about natural selection is thinking that since it's inexorable without exception, that it leaves no room for randomness, for chaos to come in and upset the directions that it's taken so far.

In fact, the process of natural selection feeds on randomness. It feeds on accident and contingency, and exploits that in ways that couldn't be predicted. It's still an inexorable process. It's still always gradually improves the fit between whatever organisms there are and the environment in which they're being selected.

But there's no predictability about what particular accidents are going to be exploited in this process.

Q: So, to you does the understanding and acceptance of natural selection eradicate the necessity for a creator?

A: When we replace the traditional idea of God, the Creator, with the idea of the process of natural selection doing the creating, the creation is as wonderful as it ever was. All that great design work had to be done. It just wasn't done by an individual; it was done by this huge process distributed over billions of years.

That means that we have to give up one thing, which is hard to give up: There's nobody to thank. The gratitude that we may feel on a beautiful day when everything is just seeming so wonderful, the desire to say "thank you," there's no appropriate recipient for our gratitude.

Aside from this, I think, our attitude toward the wonder of creation is pretty much unscathed by the Darwinian revolution.

Q: Do you think there is room for God? Is there a role for God?

A: After Darwin, God's role changes from being the designer of all creatures, great and small, to being the designer of the laws of nature, from which natural selection can unfold, to being just perhaps the chooser of the laws.

By the time God's role has been so diminished, he becomes a bit like a constitutional monarch -- presiding ceremonially but not having any more work to do. Now, that's a place for God if it makes people comfortable to keep God as the presider over the universe. I suppose that is satisfying for many.

I don't myself need that role for God.

My view is that creation itself, the universe itself, is the most wonderful thing deserving awe and respect. And that satisfies me as my substitute for God. Now, that's a view with an ancient tradition. Spinoza had a famous phrase, "God or nature," one and the same thing; I agree with Spinoza.

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