Monday, June 15, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: “Darwin's Dangerous Idea” by Daniel Dennett

In “Darwin's Dangerous Idea,” author Daniel Dennett offers a compelling and comprehensive argument for why Charles Darwin's idea of modification by natural selection is "the single best idea anyone has ever had” and why ultimately, it is not “dangerous” in the least bit. He further attests that the idea pervades through all of our existence and appropriately draws evidence in support of his claims from a diverse multitude of fields. Dennett's approach is bold in that he intrepidly challenges some of society's most esteemed and prominent scientists and philosophers. At the end of the book, the reader is exposed to an interesting and aggressive rationale for how natural selection, countering popular thought that it diminishes significance and meaning in life, actually enhances and fortifies the pillars of our existence.

One of the most interesting aspects about this book are the metaphors that Dennett creates to strengthen his argument. He describes natural selection as a crane because though mechanical, impersonal, and essentially simple, it functions to build bigger and greater things; importantly, this includes other cranes. Directly contrasting the cranes are skyhooks, which hang from the sky and are used to suspend grandiose ideas in ways that astound us and defy our understanding. They metaphorically represent other ideas that reflect humans' desire to be special and profound. The metaphor, delineated within the first few pages, resurfaces frequently throughout the book to support his claim but primarily to debunk the claims of his opponents. For me, the vivid imagery attached with Dennett's use of these metaphors really helped me understand his presentation of both sides of the Darwininsm/Creationism debate and each of their principle objectives. I regard this as perhaps the strongest and most original aspect in the book.

That is not to say that the other metaphor Dennett introduces and uses in “Darwin's Dangerous Idea” are insignificant. I was thoroughly impressed how Dennett argued strongly against such prominent intellectuals like Chomsky, Gould, Searl, and Godel by likening their ideas to everyday items with distinct functions such as vending machines, robots, and black boxes. Associating these complex and abstract ideas with tangible and accessible items was essential to my ability to follow his arguments.

Regarding the readability, I could easily tell that the book clearly was written for an intellectual and well-read audience. On one hand, I was unfortunate to be relatively new to the topic and failed to recognize some of the references to other works and concepts made; on the other, Dennett noticeable took great effort at attempting to make the book more general-audience friendly through his provision of detailed footnotes. Coupled with the relatively easy prose, I was able to invest myself into the book's arguments though it definitely worked me out mentally.

Ultimately, I recommend that “Darwin's Dangerous Idea” is worth a read for the clarity it provides readers on the Darwinism/Creationism debate. The coverage of ideas and topics is so wide that at the very least, readers familiarize themselves with a multitude of modern contentious discussion topics.


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