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What I'm reading

November 16th, 2003

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett. Dennett’s main concern is to ram home the point that, much as we might like the idea of some sort of special exemption from processes of undirected natural selection (a skyhook) we’re not going to find one.

Dennett naturally lines up with Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, but I find him much more satisfactory than either of these. While he’s remorseless in his basic argument, he’s careful to avoid slides into what he calls ‘greedy reductionism’. To caricature, the typical ‘greedy reductionist’ slide goes from “The existence of (say) the High Court” is the result of evolutionary events on the African savanna many thousands of years ago” (trivial true, except perhaps for some details about location) to “The best way to explain the decisions of the High Court is with reference to evolutionary events on the African savanna many thousands of years ago”. (silly).

As I observe in this review of Pinker, this kind of slide from trivially true to indefensibly strong arguments runs all the way through The Blank Slate. Dawkins is prone to the same fault, though not as much so.

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