Daniel Dennett’s Dead-End Social Darwinism

Throughout his career, philosopher Daniel Dennett has combined arrogant speculation about science with his conservative philosophical assumptions. His recent attempts to pettily settle scores in his memoir only confirm his backward worldview.

Daniel Dennett attends the Telegraph Hay festival on May 26, 2013, in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. (David Levenson / Getty Images)

The philosopher Daniel Dennett is fond of pointing out his resemblance to Charles Darwin. The comparison is somewhat apt. Like his double, Dennett has championed evolutionary theory and been a thorn in the side of organized religion. In a series of books on consciousness, evolution, religion, jokes, and other topics, he has spent the better part of the last fifty years marketing a bespoke version of social Darwinism by translating its main tenet — that adaptation leads to progress — into the imagery and rhetoric of Silicon Valley–era capitalism.

Dennett’s memoir published last fall, I’ve Been Thinking, includes the expected sketches of his childhood and adolescence. Born in Boston, he spent part of his childhood in Beirut, where his father, a Harvard-trained scholar of Islam, was stationed as a CIA agent before dying under mysterious circumstances in a plane crash in Ethiopia in 1947. The Dennetts returned to New England where Daniel eventually attended Phillips Exeter and Harvard University before doctoral study at Oxford. After a stint in England, he found work at the philosophy department at University of California Irvine when the campus first opened before settling at Tufts University for the majority of his career.

Dennett’s memoir is an uneven affair. It includes ruminations on mortality alongside allegations of bullying, which he levels against academic luminaries like the philosophers Jerry Fodor and John Searle as well as the left-wing biologist Stephen Jay Gould. Intermingled with this are trivial anecdotes about the best restaurants near conferences in far-flung locales, the cities he enjoys the most, and his infatuations with sailing and Cameron Diaz.

But despite its lack of coherence, I’ve Been Thinking is guided by two questions that its author takes to be pressing. Was his success mostly due to luck and was he perhaps wrong about some of his philosophical views?

Working within the tradition of analytic philosophy of mind, a strain of thought which developed within the English academy, Dennett has maintained several positions that might strike many outside of the discipline as counterintuitive. Chief amongst these is his denial of the relevance of subjective experience — or “qualia,” as philosophers are fond of calling it — in the study of consciousness, a view which came to prominence mid-century largely thanks to the Oxford don Gilbert Ryle.

More controversially, perhaps, he has denied that Darwin’s theory of natural selection is incompatible with the premodern notion that nature can be understood to have purposes or ends. For Dennett, evolution by natural selection does not abandon what Aristotle called final causes, as Darwin explicitly said it had. Dennett simply replaces the higher intelligence of God, the traditional final cause, with the principle of natural selection.

Accordingly, critics have charged him with “ultra-Darwinism” and “Darwinian fundamentalism.” Dennett’s own description is more accurate. Without irony, he has likened his Darwinism to the adaptationist determinism of Professor Pangloss in Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide. Like Pangloss, Dennett thinks “things cannot be other than what they are.”

“Noses Were Made to Carry Spectacles”

The series of events that led Dennett to adopt his extreme and idiosyncratic version of Darwinism as a broad defense of Panglossian adaptationist thinking are alluded to several times in his memoir, but never sketched with full clarity. Here in brief is a summary. In the early 1980s, Dennett composed an article on the communication system of vervet monkeys that was rejected by a leading journal, the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Dennett received a negative reader’s report that invoked the influential 1979 paper of the leading evolutionists and political progressives Gould and Richard Lewontin, “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm.” This began a decidedly one-sided feud between Dennett and Gould and Lewontin.

Gould and Lewontin’s paper criticized not the fact of adaptation but the presumption of adaptationism, the view that all features of an organism must be adapted for some good purpose. They felt that evolutionists needed a reminder that such thinking had been long ago excoriated by Voltaire in his portrayal of Pangloss, the foolishly optimistic and politically quietist professor. As Pangloss tells Candide in lines cited by Gould and Lewontin: “Things cannot be other than what they are. . . . Everything is made for the best purpose. Our noses were made to carry spectacles; so we have spectacles. Legs were clearly intended for breeches, and we wear breeches.”

Dennett praises such adaptationist speculations as “reverse engineering.” In 2017’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Dennett wrote that “until proven otherwise,” it can be assumed “that all the parts of an organism are good for something. . . . The assumption is built right in to the reverse-engineering perspective that sees all living things as efficiently composed of parts with functions.” Without adaptationism, Dennett’s dilettantish speculations — on vervet monkeys or other topics in biology he has no real expertise in — simply could not proceed.

There is also a political dimension to the appeal of Pangloss-style reasoning for Dennett and other contemporary social Darwinists. Pangloss excels at justifying the status quo. Typically, Pangloss’s adaptationism prevents him from acting when normal human decency commands it, as when he explains to Candide that they need not save their friend who has fallen overboard because the Lisbon harbor was designed for their poor friend to drown in.

In the larger political and social context of the 1980s and ’90s, when Dennett began his feud with Gould and Lewontin, the US working class was drowning and adaptationism was the underlying assumption of two popular science trends — “sociobiology” and “evolutionary psychology” — that said we should let them sink. Both sociobiology and evolutionary psychology sought to rebrand Darwinism as a defense of the idea of an innate violent, competitive human nature and intrinsic, immutable, “natural” differences between sexual and even racial groups.

Both did as much as any intellectual movement to create the current political climate where government cuts to basic necessities proceed as a matter of course. Adaptationism, Gould’s argued in The Mismeasure of Man, his classic refutation of the view that biology was destiny, helped foster “a historical moment of unprecedented ungenerosity, when a mood for slashing social programs can be so abetted by an argument that beneficiaries cannot be aided due to inborn cognitive limits expressed as low IQ scores.”

Gould and Lewontin’s widely discussed paper is better remembered for the other phrase in its title: “the spandrels of San Marco.” In architecture, spandrels are a structural byproduct resulting from the placement a dome on top of four rounded arches. The spandrels fill in the empty space where the arch stops touching the top of the dome, stabilizing the overall structure. In finished cathedrals they are frequently painted and otherwise beautifully ornamented, as in the four famed spandrels of the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice, Italy, that depict the four biblical rivers (Tigris, Euphrates, Indue, and Nile).

For Gould and Lewontin, if we adopt the adaptationist perspective, we might mistakenly assume the San Marco spandrels were initially formed to be part of the cathedral’s artwork and miss their origin as necessary structural byproducts. Gould and Lewontin intentionally began their discussion of adaptationism with the seemingly distant topic of spandrels and architecture precisely to avoid the adaptationist bias that would occur in biological examples, where “evolutionary biologists,” Gould and Lewontin write, “in their tendency to focus exclusively on immediate adaptation to local conditions . . . tend to ignore architectural constraints and perform . . . an inversion of explanation.”

The term spandrel has become a useful term for how architectural constraints in living things give rise to byproducts that are only later adapted for some current utility. Spandrels help identify how frequently constraints more generally — acting as channels and pathways of historical development — are more determinant of the actuality of living things than partisans of adaptationism, like Dennett, realize or would prefer to think.

When Dennett’s revised article on vervet monkey signaling finally appeared in 1983, Behavioral and Brain Sciences simultaneously published twenty pages of responses. Some were in favor but the majority opposed Dennett’s article’s defense of Pangloss and his argument that we should tell adaptive stories from an imagined “intentional stance” of animals in the course of studying their behavior. Even his supporter Richard Dawkins admitted Dennett had a long way to go in convincing biologists of the usefulness of his “intentional stance” in understanding animal behavior.

Lewontin’s response (Gould demurred) concludes bluntly that, “Dennett has confused ‘adaptationism’ with ‘adaptation.’ We scorn the former, not the latter. We abuse a world view that raises a phenomenon to untested universality, not the phenomenon itself, which is of undoubted importance in evolution.”

“Was it wise for me to tease [Gould and Lewontin]?” Dennett wonders in his memoir. He then excuses his incivility by claiming he was sticking up for young biologists of the 1980s who would not find work “if they adopted an evolutionary perspective in their fieldwork.” Here again Dennett is unwilling (or perhaps unable) to distinguish adaptationism from the study of evolution more broadly, where phenomena in genetics, allometry, evolutionary development, and other areas have long challenged the primacy of the adaptationist mode of explanation.

Academic Cry Bullying

Dennett is disastrously wrong in the memoir on multiple occasions, but never more so than when he accuses several prominent contemporaries of being bullies and fashions himself as the brave, lowly professor who stood up to them all. In each case, but especially in the case of Gould, based on the evidence provided by Dennett’s memoir, it is really almost exactly the opposite.

Dennett admits to admiring Gould’s famed essays on natural history, that appeared in three hundred consecutive monthly issues of Natural History magazine, and to pursuing a friendship with Gould, who at the time of his death in 2002 was one of the most famous scientists in the world. But things were already sour in Dennett’s mind from when he had first read “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm.” Dennett grew angrier at Gould in later encounters and for the biologist’s insufficient fealty to the adaptationist dogma that adaption, until proven otherwise, can be assumed to be fashioning parts of organisms for some good purpose.

Dennett’s harassment of Gould culminated in his 1995 book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, where he devoted the longest chapter to a sustained attack on Gould that inaccurately summarizes his major ideas, resorts to glib mockery, and ends by red-baiting (Gould was active in the civil rights movement from his youth onward.)

Dennett’s memoir contains an extraordinary new admission about his notorious attack on Gould. In an astonishingly cynical ploy, through an unnamed mutual friend, the philosopher tried to extort a favorable review from Gould in exchange for removing the offensive chapter. “I asked [the friend],” Dennett confesses, “if he could guarantee that Gould would not trash my book when it appeared if I left out the chapter.” Of course, the friend could not and knew already that Gould would view Dennett’s adaptationism unfavorably.

Gould did not end up reviewing the book. He did, however, write an impassioned defense of his views against Dennett’s misguided criticisms. Gould’s main point in response to Dennett’s glib mockery was the relatively moderate one he had made for years about the problem with strict adaptationist thinking. Darwinism in the strict adaptationist sense has, in light of subsequent scientific discoveries, yielded to a more pluralistic account of evolution.

None of Gould’s behavior in the interactions and exchanges documented by Dennett could plausibly be described as bullying. Gould was attacked and defended himself. But Dennett’s attacks on Gould and others certainly could be. He attacked Gould’s work in a polemic and then responded indignantly when Gould defended himself. Seeming to recognize this, Dennett ends his account of Gould as an “academic bully” with another story he hopes his readers will accept as evidence.

In his public lectures on evolution and Darwin’s legacy, Gould often made use of the tragic story of “Baby Fae,” in which an infant girl, Stephanie Fae Beauclair, was given a baboon heart in a transplant surgery when no human heart was available and died within weeks. Following the surgery, the surgeon, Leonard Lee Bailey, was asked by reporters why he had not transplanted the heart of a closer relative species, like a chimpanzee. Bailey replied, “I don’t believe in evolution.” Gould’s point was simple: there are real practical consequences to not accepting the idea of evolution.

Dennett reports that the same anonymous person in the audience at two different talks chastised Gould for using a slide of Baby Fae’s tombstone that revealed her full name (during the sensationalized coverage in 1984, the media had not). When upon being attacked Gould defended his choice, Dennett concludes from this that Gould “often seemed incapable of acknowledging error.” This is false and misleading. Gould called “factual correction . . . the most sublime event in intellectual life,” and regularly wrote new essays in his monthly series updating readers on previous topics as new and more accurate information became available. It is misleading as an example of error because it is at most an error of judgement, of a debatable want of tact, not an error in need of factual correction.

Dennett ends his bullying discussion of Gould with a new low, even for him. From the Baby Fae example and the false and misleading idea that Gould could not acknowledge error, he speculates that hardly anyone else in the academic community ever attacked Gould because they felt bad for him. Gould survived a virulent cancer in the early 1980s and because of this, as an object of pity, according to Dennett he was treated with kid gloves and “got used to the idea that his opinions were sacrosanct.” Dennett then acknowledges some good in Gould’s early work, before summarizing his magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (2002), as “a gigantic book, including many tirades, but fortunately for his reputation it is almost unreadable, so it hasn’t had much influence.”

In fact, Gould’s Structure, though nearly fifteen hundred pages long, is eminently readable, tirelessly explanatory, and overwhelmingly fair-minded in its summaries of many neglected but worthy figures in the history of science. If it goes unread, this is hardly exceptional. The primary texts of major scientists are frequently neglected by busy bench scientists with little time for reading, especially a long book like Gould’s Structure that is a historical and philosophical overview and analysis of the entire topic of evolutionary theory both before and since Darwin.

But Dennett’s characterization of Structure is a perfect, unwitting epitome of his own memoir. Dennett’s text is full of tirades wrought from petty grievances, is disorganized to the point of being unreadable, and like the rest of his books, will undoubtedly not have much influence.