American philosopher Daniel Dennett talks to Carole Jahme about faith, science, empathy – and Short Circuit
This week American philosopher Daniel Dennett, a long-time stalwart of Darwin@LSE, shared his wisdom with a lunchtime crowd in the London School of Economics' Old Theatre. Since fellow philosopher Helena Cronin's 1995 launch of the LSE hub (which is devoted to evolution's maxims) Dennett has been a regular guest. His mission this week to persuade the public that cultural evolution exists and is facilitated due to our hierarchical nature, where those at the top tell others what to think and do. Dennett rhetorically asked, "Does culture make us smart enough to have minds?"
From studying the human ability to become good at things without understanding, which then leads to our acquisition of the cognisance to comprehend, via our competence, Dennett favours the theory (first suggested by Richard Dawkins) that our social learning has given us a second information highway (in addition to the genetic highway) where the transmission of variant cultural information (memes) takes place via differential replication. Software viruses, for example, can be understood as memes, and as memes evolve in complexity, so does human cognition: "The mind is the effect, not the cause."
Not all philosophers, including Cronin, agree that natural selection shapes culture. But Dennett goes even further, describing a spectrum where, at one end, memes are authorless and free floating and at the opposite end they are guided by forethought, are less Darwinian and more purposeful, such as statistics, computer software and poetry. "Natural selection is not gene centrist and nor is biology all about genes, our comprehending minds are a result of our fast evolving culture. Words are memes that can be spoken and words are the best example of memes. Words have a genealogy and it's easier to trace the evolution of a single word than the evolution of a language."
Because Dennett is an approachable, kind man, once his lecture finished I proposed accompanying him to his lunch appointment and asking a few questions en route. Luckily, he agreed.