Daniel Dennett's Dangerous Idea
Phillip E. Johnson
September 5, 1995
[This review of *Darwin's Dangerous Idea,* by Daniel Dennett, was published
in The New Criterion (October, 1995)]
Daniel Dennett's fertile imagination is captivated by the very dangerous
idea that the neo-Darwinian theory of biological evolution should become
the basis for what amounts to an established state religion of scientific
materialism. Dennett takes the scientific part of his thesis from the inner
circle of contemporary Darwinian theorists: William Hamilton, John Maynard
Smith, George C. Williams, and the brilliant popularizer Richard Dawkins.
When Dennett describes the big idea emanating from this circle as dangerous,
he does not mean that it is dangerous only to religious fundamentalists.
The persons whom he accuses of flinching when faced with the full implications
of Darwinism are scientists and philosophers of the highest standing: Noam
Chomsky, Roger Penrose, Jerry Fodor, John Searle, and especially Stephen
Each one of these very secular thinkers supposedly tries, as the simple
religious folk do, to limit the all-embracing logic of Darwinism. Dennett
describes Darwinism as a "universal acid; it eats through just about
every traditional concept and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view."
One thinker after another has tried unsuccessfully to find some way to contain
this universal acid, to protect something from its corrosive power.
Why? First let's see what the idea is.
Dennett begins the account with John Locke's late seventeenth-century Essay
Concerning Human Understanding, where Locke answers the question, "Which
came first, mind or matter?" Locke's answer was that mind had to come
first, because "it is impossible to conceive that ever bare incogitative
matter should produce a thinking intelligent Being." David Hume mounted
some powerful skeptical arguments against this mind-first principle, but
in the end he couldn't come up with a solid alternative.
Darwin did not set out to overturn the mind-first picture of reality, but
to do something much more modest: to explain the origin of biological species,
and the wonderful adaptations that enable those species to survive and reproduce
in diverse ways. The answer Darwin came up with was that these adaptations,
which had seemed to be intelligently designed, are actually products of
a mindless process called natural selection. Dennett says that what Darwin
offered the world, in philosophical terms, was "a scheme for creating
Design out of Chaos without the aid of Mind." When the Darwinian outlook
became accepted throughout the scientific world, the stage was set for a
much broader philosophical revolution. Dennett explains that
The metaphysical reversal was so complete that it soon became as unthinkable
within science to credit any biological feature to a designer as
it had previously been unthinkable to do without the designer. Whenever
seemingly insuperable problems were encountered -- the genetic mechanism,
the human mind, the ultimate origin of life -- biologists were confident
that a solution of the Darwinian kind would be found. To be sure, the cause
of materialist reductionism was sometimes set back by "greedy reductionists"
like the behaviorist B.F. Skinner, who tried to explain human behavior as
a direct consequence of material forces. The catchy metaphor Dennett employs
to describe the difference between the greedy and good kinds of reductionism
is "cranes, not skyhooks." The origin of (say) the human mind
must be attributed to some process firmly anchored on the solid ground of
materialism and natural selection (a crane), and not to a mystery or miracle
(skyhook), but this does not mean that human behavior or mental activity
can be understood directly on the basis of material concepts like
stimulus and response or natural selection.
Although many aspects of evolutionary theory remain controversial, Dennett
asserts confidently that the overall success of Darwinism-in-principle has
been so smashing that the basic program -- all the way up and all the way
down -- is established beyond question. Any yet the resistance continues.
Some of it comes from religious people, who want to preserve some role for
a creator. Dennett just brushes aside the outright creationists, but takes
more pains to refute those who would say that God is the author of the laws
of nature, including that marvelous evolutionary process that does all the
designing. The Darwinian alternative to a Lawgiver at the beginning of the
universe is to postpone the beginning indefinitely by hypothesizing something
like an eternal system of evolution at the level of universes.
For example, the physicist Lee Smolin has proposed that black holes are
in effect the birthplaces of offspring universes, in which the fundamental
physical constants would differ slightly from those in the parent universe.
Since those universes that happened to have the most black holes would leave
the most "offspring," the basic Darwinian concepts of mutation
and differential reproduction could be extended to cosmology. Dennett contends
that whether this or any other model is testable, at least cosmic Darwinism
relies on the same kind of thinking that has been successful in scientific
fields like biology where testing is possible, and that is enough to make
it preferable to an alternative that brings in a skyhook. He does not attempt
to explain the origin of the cosmic evolutionary process. It's just mutating
universes all the way down.
Much of the resistance to Darwinism "all the way up" comes from
scientists and philosophers who deny the capacity of natural selection to
produce specifically human mental qualities like the capacity for language.
Foremost among these is Noam Chomsky, founder of modern linguistics, who
describes a complex language program seemingly "hard-wired" into
the human brain, which has no real analogy in the animal world and for which
there is no very plausible story of step-by-step evolution through adaptive
intermediate forms. Chomsky readily accepts evolutionary naturalism in principle,
but (supported by Stephen Jay Gould) he regards Darwinian selection as no
more than a place holder for a true explanation of the human language capacity
which has not yet been found.
To true-believing Darwinists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, all
such objections are fundamentally misconceived. The more intricately "designed"
a feature appears to be, the more certain it is to have been constructed
by natural selection -- because there is no alternative way of producing
design without resorting to impossible skyhooks. Even in the toughest cases,
where plausible Darwinian hypotheses are hard to imagine and impossible
to confirm, a Darwinian solution simply has to be out there waiting to be
found. The alternative to natural selection is either God or chance. The
former is outside of science, and also apparently outside the contemplation
of Gould or Chomsky; the latter is no solution at all. Once you understand
the dimensions of the problem, and the philosophical constraints within
which it must be solved, Darwinism is practically true by definition --
regardless of the evidence.
I call this a very interesting situation. Within science the Darwinian viewpoint
clearly occupies the high ground, because nobody has come up with an alternative
for explaining Design that does not invoke an unacceptable pre-existing
Mind. (Dennett easily refutes such hype-induced notions as that a physics
of self-organizing systems from the Santa Fe Institute is in the process
of replacing Darwinism.) But the rulers of this impregnable citadel are
worried because not everybody believes that their citadel is impregnable.
They are troubled not only by polls showing that the American public still
overwhelmingly favors some version of supernatural creation, but also by
the tendency of prominent scientists to accept Darwinism-in- principle,
but to dispute the applicability of the theory to specific problems, usually
the problems about which they are best qualified to speak.
Dennett thinks that the dissenters either fail to understandthe logic of
Darwinism or shrink from embracing its full metaphysical implications. I
prefer another explanation: Darwinism is a lot stronger as philosophy than
it is as empirical science. If you aren't willing to challenge the underlying
premise of scientific materialism, you are stuck with Darwinism- in-principle
as a creation story until you find something better, and it doesn't seem
that there is anything better. Once you get past the uncontroversial
examples of microevolution, however, such as finch beak variations, peppered
moth coloring, and selective breeding, all certainty dissolves in speculation
and controversy. Nobody really knows how life originated, where the animal
phyla came from, or how natural selection could have produced the qualities
of the human mind. Ingenious hypothetical scenarios for the evolution of
complex adaptations are presented to the public virtually as fact, but skeptics
within science derisively call them "just-so" stories, because
they can neither be tested experimentally nor supported by fossil histories.
Many scientists who swear fealty to Darwinism on philosophical grounds put
it aside when they get down to scientific practice. A good example is Niles
Eldredge, a paleontologist who collaborated with Stephen Jay Gould in the
famous papers advocating that evolution proceeds by "punctuated equilibria,"
meaning long changeless periods which are occasionally interrupted by the
abrupt appearance of new forms. "Punk eek" was widely interpreted
at first as an implied endorsement of a macromutational alternative to Darwinian
gradualism, a misunderstanding that led scornful Darwinists to dismiss the
idea as "evolution by jerks," but both Gould and Eldredge insisted
that the unseen process of change was Darwinian. Eldredge in particular
is so determined to wash away the taint of heresy that he has taken to describing
himself as a "knee-jerk neo-Darwinian," a label that seems both
to protest too much and to imply a willingness to overlook disconfirming
On the other hand, Eldredge rejects what he calls "ultra- Darwinism,"
the position of Dawkins and Dennett, on grounds that obscurely imply rejection
of the very factor that makes Darwin's idea dangerous, the claim that natural
selection has sufficient creative power to account for design. For example,
he writes in his 1994 book Reinventing Darwin that ultra-Darwinians
are guilty of "physics envy" because they "seek to transform
natural selection from a simple form of record keeping... to a more dynamic,
active force that molds and shapes organic form as time goes by." Eldredge
has no philosophical problem with atheistic materialism; his ambivalence
stems entirely from the embarrassingly un-Darwinian fossil record, as described
in this typical paragraph:
Whatever is motivating Eldredge to give all that fervent lip-service to
Darwinism, it obviously is not anything he has discovered as a paleontologist.
In fact the real problem is understood by everyone, although it has to be
discussed in guarded terms. What paleontologists fear is not the scientific
consequences of disowning Darwinism but the political consequences.
They fear it might lead to a takeover of government by religious fundamentalists
who would shut off the funding.
There are paleontologists who are more supportive of Darwinism than Eldredge,
just as there are other eminent scientists who are more explicit in insisting
that the neo- Darwinian variety of evolution is valid only at the "micro"
level. Regardless of the number or status of the skeptics, the usual scientific
practice is to retain a paradigm, however shaky, until somebody provides
a better one. I will assume arguendo that this "best we've got"
policy is justifiable within science itself. The question I want to pursue
is whether non-scientists have some legal, moral, or intellectual obligation
to accept Darwinism as absolutely true, especially when the theory is encountering
so many difficulties with the evidence. The issue comes up in many important
contexts; here are two examples.
First, consider the situation of Christian parents, not necessarily fundamentalists,
who suspect that the term "evolution" drips with atheistic implications.
The whole point of Dennett's thesis is that the parents are dead right about
the implications, and that science educators who deny this are either misinformed
or lying. Do parents then have a right to protect their children from indoctrination
in atheism, and even to insist that the public schools include in the science
curriculum a fair review of the arguments against the atheistic claim
that unintelligent natural processes are our true creator?
Dennett cannot be accused of avoiding the religious liberty issue, or of
burying it in tactful circumlocutions. He proposes that theistic religion
should continue to exist only in "cultural zoos," and he says
this directly to religious parents:
Of course it is not freedom of speech that worries the parents, but the
power of atheistic materialists to use public education for indoctrination,
while excluding any other view as "religion." If you want to know
how such threats sound to Christian parents, try imagining what would happen
if some prominent Christian fundamentalist addressed similar language to
Jewish parents. Would we think the Jewish parents unreasonable if they interpreted
"at the very least" to imply that young children may be forcibly
removed from the homes of recalcitrant parents, and that those metaphorical
cultural zoos may one day be enclosed by real barbed wire? Strong measures
might seem justified if the well-being of everyone on the planet depends
upon protecting children from the falsehoods their parents want to tell
I will pass over the legal issues raised by this program of forced religious
conversion because the intellectual issues are even more interesting. Granted
that Darwinism is the reigning paradigm in biology, is there some rule in
the academic world which requires non-scientists to accept Darwinian principles
when they write about, say, philosophy or ethics? My Berkeley colleague
John Searle thinks so. In the first chapter of his recent book on The
Construction of Social Reality, Searle states that it is necessary "to
make some substantive presuppositions about how the world is in fact
in order that we can even pose the questions we are trying to answer (about
how other aspects of reality are socially constructed)." According
to Searle, "two features of our conception of reality are not up for
grabs. They are not, so to speak, optional for us as citizens of the late
twentieth and early twenty-first century." The two compulsory theories
are that the world consists entirely of the entities that physicists call
particles, and that living systems (including humans and their minds) evolved
by natural selection.
I think that Searle undermines his whole project by virtually ordering his
readers not to notice that scientific materialism and Darwinism are themselves
socially constructed doctrines rather than objective facts. Scientists assume
materialism because they define their enterprise as a search for the best
materialist theories, and this culturally-driven methodological choice is
not even evidence, let alone proof, that the world really does consist only
of particles. As an explanation for design in biology, Darwinism is perfectly
secure when it is regarded as a deduction from materialism, but remarkably
insecure when it is subjected to empirical testing. Given that what we most
respect about science is its fidelity to the principle that empirical testing
is what really matters, why should philosophers allow scientists to tell
them that they must accept assumptions that don't pass the empirical test?
Searle is a particularly poignant example, because he is famous for defending
the independence of the mind against the onslaught of the materialist "strong
AI" program, and also for defending traditional academic standards
against the corrosive relativism of the fact/value distinction. He is so
skillful in argument that he almost holds his own even after leaping gratuitously
into a pool of universal acid, but why accept the disadvantage? Searle could
seize the high ground if he began by proposing that any true metaphysical
theory must account for two essential truths which materialism cannot accommodate:
first, that mind is more than matter; and second, that such things as truth,
beauty, and goodness really do exist even if most people do not know how
to recognize them. Scientific materialists would answer that they proved
long ago, or are going to prove at some time in the future, that materialism
is true. They are bluffing.
Science is a wonderful thing in its place. Because science is so successful
in its own territory, however, scientists and their allied philosophers
sometimes get bemused by dreams of world conquest. Paul Feyerabend put it
best: "Scientists are not content with running their own playpens in
accordance with what they regard as the rules of the scientific method,
they want to universalize those rules, they want them to become part of
society at large, and they use every means at their disposal -- argument,
propaganda, pressure tactics, intimidation, lobbying -- to achieve their
aims." Samuel Johnson gave the best answer to this absurd imperialism.
"A cow is a very good animal in the field; but we turn her out of a
[Phillip E. Johnson is the Jefferson E. Peyser Professor of Law at the University
of California, Berkeley. He is the author ofDarwin on Trial and Reason
in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law and Education.]