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§    Introduction


§                           1. The Ladder of Cultural Evolution

§                           2. The Way We Were

§                           3. Add Technology and Bake for Five Millennia

§                           4. The Invisible Brain

§                           5. War: What Is It Good For? 

§                           6. The Inevitability of Agriculture 

§                           7. The Age of Chiefdoms

§                           8. The Second Information Revolution

§                           9. Civilization and So On

§                           10. Our Friends the Barbarians 

§                           11. Dark Ages

§                           12. The Inscrutable Orient

§                           13. Modern Times

§                           14. And Here We Are

§                           15. New World Order

§                           16. Degrees of Freedom


§                          17. The Cosmic Context

§                          18. The Rise of Biological Non-zero-sumness

§                          19. Why Life Is So Complex

§                          20. The Last Adaptation


§                          21. Non-crazy Questions

§                          22. You Call This a God?


§                          Appendix I: On Non-zero-sumness

§                          Appendix II: What Is Social Complexity?









Did I Misrepresent the Views of Dan Dennett?

by Robert Wright

Oct. 8, 2004

[Oct. 10 and Oct. 19 updates appended below]


This week I published a piece in Beliefnet about an interview I did with the philosopher Daniel Dennett for my video website In the piece I asserted that Dennett (long famously atheist) had said that, as I paraphrased it, “life on earth shows signs of having a higher purpose.” In other words: the process of natural selection may itself have been set in motion by a designer (in some sense of that word), and the ensuing biological/cultural evolution may be moving toward some purpose that we don’t yet understand.


Dennett, in statements that have gotten wide circulation on the internet, has since complained that my piece misrepresents the views he expressed in that interview. So far as I can tell, he’s wrong.


Before explaining why he’s wrong, let me sound one note of self-criticism. In the Beliefnet piece, I added the following elaboration: “I want to stress that Dennett isn't saying he thinks evolution's directionality constitutes anything like a strong case that natural selection was in some sense a product of design. He's just conceding that (a) to the extent that evolution exhibits directionality of the kind I've just described, there is at least some evidence of design; and (b) evolution does exhibit some of this directionality.” [To view the part of the interview in  which he (grudgingly) concedes these two points, click here.] I also stressed that to acknowledge evidence of “purpose” isn’t necessarily to acknowledge evidence of divine purpose in the common sense of the word. 


However, I added these important qualifiers many paragraphs later, after explaining the logic of the argument for design. So readers who quit reading my piece part-way through it may have been left with the impression that Dennett had renounced his atheism or had made a more dramatic concession than he in fact made (though I still consider his concession quite dramatic, given his previous position). In retrospect, I think I should have added these qualifiers higher in the piece. [Also—as I note in the Oct. 10 update, appended below—I definitely should have used the word “acknowledged” instead of the word “declared” in paragraph 3 of the Beliefnet piece.] In other words, I am arguably guilty of “sensationalizing” the news.


Anyway, back to Dennett’s claim that I got the news itself wrong—that I “seriously misrepresented” his views, as he put it.   


In an e-mail to me earlier this week, Dennett, elaborating on his charge of misrepresentation, wrote, “all I am granting [in the interview]... is that IF evolution exhibited the properties that embryogenesis [i.e., the maturation of an organism] exhibits (which it doesn't, as I've kept insisting) this would work to some extent in favor of your purpose hypothesis.”


In a reply to Dennett, I quoted stretches of the interview that showed the following: Not only had he not “kept insisting” on relevant differences between evolution and embryogenesis (sometimes referred to as “ontogeny” in the video clip); he had in fact spent much time agreeing with me on the similarities. If you want to read these parts of the transcript, see this excerpt of my e-mail to Dennett.


In reply to my e-mail, Dennett wrote, “I can see why you think you have me granting you your key premises, but I didn't see it that way, and still don't.” In elaborating, he slightly amended, or at least clarified, his position. He no longer denied that he had acknowledged various similarities between evolution and embryogenesis (or ontogeny--an organism’s maturation). But he said that the similarities he had acknowledged weren’t the kind of similarities that would qualify as evidence of design.


In reply, I noted that, actually, in the course of the interview, he and I had (a) agreed on one type of similarity between ontogeny and biological/cultural evolution that would constitute evidence of design; and (b) agreed that this similarity in fact exists. Namely: both ontogeny (embryogenesis) and evolution exhibit “directional movement toward functionality.” Here are the relevant sections of the transcript [I’ve inverted their order to reflect the logic of the argument]:  



Wright: “So, I’m just saying that to the extent—I think we’ve agreed that observing, what is it, I guess ontogeny is the term, you know, the development of an organism, that it has its directional movement toward functionality by design, and that’s in fact a hallmark of design. Would you agree that to the extent that evolution on this planet turned out to have comparable properties, that would work at least to some extent in favor of the hypothesis of design—to some extent, to any extent?”

Dennett: “Ummm, Yeah, I guess. Yeah. Yeah.



Wright [after describing ontogeny, i.e. the maturation of an organism]: “I would submit that if you step back and observe life on this planet in time lapse, including not just the evolution of human beings, but the cultural--including technological--evolution that led to where we are today, the process would look remarkably like that. And in fact you yourself in your most recent book, Freedom Evolves, you say--there’s a sentence something like, `The planet is growing its own nervous system, us.’ And it’s true—it looks like that.”

Dennett:  Yeah, absolutely.

Wright: “And there is a functionality about it”

Dennett: Yeah, yeah.

Wright: “And you agree there’s been a directionality about it”

Dennett: Yes.


In summary:

1) Dennett accepts that directional movement toward functionality is a hallmark of design in evolution.

2) He agrees that evolution exhibits directional movement toward functionality.

It follows that he believes that evolution has at least some of the hallmarks of design.


Now, in my view, this closes the case, at least in the following sense: No reasonable person can deny that my interpretation of Dennett’s remarks was reasonable.


Yet Dennett persists! He’s written me a new e-mail suggesting that my reasonable-seeming interpretation is misleading. He makes two main points:


1) He now says he misunderstood something I said in the interview. Referring to section (B) of the transcript, in which I say, “And there is a functionality about it,” he says:


“I see that this `it' is ambiguous.  I should have spotted it and

insisted on disambiguating it.  I was taking the `it’ to be the nervous system of the planet, not the process that created it, but I can see that you probably meant the process.” 


I appreciate Dennett’s acknowledging that in this case the error lies partly with him. But I really don’t see how his preferred interpretation of “it” gets him off the hook. The question, as I had phrased it, is whether biological/cultural evolution exhibits “directional movement toward functionality.” Well, if the planetary nervous system has functionality, and biological/cultural evolution has been moving toward this planetary nevous system directionally, then there is “directional movement toward functionality,” right? (By the way, Dennett and I agree that here “directionally” just means “probabalistically”—not “pulled by some mystical force.” We’re both speaking within the context of a materialist world view.)


2) Dennett’s second point is harder to decipher. Recall that in section A, above, I do two things:

(1) I note that he and I agree that the maturation of an organism “has its directional movement toward functionality by design, and that’s in fact a hallmark of design,” and;

(2) I then get him to agree that “to the extent that evolution on this planet turned out to have comparable properties, that would work at least to some extent in favor of the hypothesis of design.”


It seems obvious to me that by “comparable properties” I meant “directional movement toward functionality.” But Dennett now seems to be saying that by “comparable properties” he took me to mean “directional movement toward functionality by design.” (At least, that’s the only interpretation I can put on his latest e-mail to me: Here’s the relevant section.) In other words (so far as I can tell) he now says he thinks I was asking the question: “Would you say that if a process has a certain property by design, that’s evidence that the process was designed?”


First of all, if he thought I was positing an argument so blatantly circular, why didn’t he stop me and ridicule me, rather than pause, reflect on the question, and answer it affirmatively? 


Second, if he thought that I was making a wholly tautological argument--that design is evidence of design-- then why did he write to me in one e-mail this week (in one of his more charitable moments): “You draw attention to an interesting avenue of argument that has not been particularly well explored so far as I know, but I don't think it is a winner.” What would be even “interesting” about this tautology?


Okay, so much for the issue of misrepresentation. I think the facts and logic are on my side, but decide for yourself. (And feel free to watch the relevant video clip itself.) [Update: Dennett has offered a new explanation of what he intended his remarks to mean. See Oct. 19 update, appended below.]




Before signing off, I’d like to head off an apparently tempting misunderstanding of the argument I’m making. At one point in this week’s flurry of e-mails, Dennett made a criticism of the argument that I’m pretty sure he’d take back if he had time to reflect on it. He wrote, “The mistake you are making is a sort of part/whole fallacy. From the fact that some of the fruits of the tree of life exhibit design, you cannot infer that the whole tree does.”


That is definitely not the kind of inference I’m making. If it were, I wouldn’t have to get into what properties evolution exhibits at all. I’d just say, “Dan we agree that organisms are designed by natural selection, right? Therefore, natural selection is itself designed.” And Dan would appropriately admonish me for my illogic.


Here, rather, is the actual structure of my argument: (1) What properties of fruits would add weight to the hypothesis that they were designed even if we knew nothing about how fruits had in fact come into existence—even if, to put a finer point on it, we had only one fruit to inspect? In other words, what are some hallmarks of design in a generic sense? (2) To the extent that the tree itself exhibits those same properties, that is (at least some) evidence that the tree itself is a product of design—since these properties are, after all, hallmarks of design in a generic sense.


I think Dennett was right when he called this argument “an interesting avenue of argument that has not been particularly well explored so far as I know.” I’ve been making variations on this argument for years now (including in the penultimate chapter of my book Nonzero, though that version of the argument is less elegant and, I now think, flawed). And I’ve been hoping more scholars would take the argument seriously. So I was delighted when, during our interview, Dennett started to take the argument seriously by affirming its basic soundness. I now realize that I may have cut off his further exploration of it by presenting this affirmation in such dramatic fashion in my Beliefnet piece. (See my mea culpa for sensationalism, in paragraph four of this discourse.) I’m very sorry about that. Dennett has made great contributions to the public’s understanding of both Darwinism and philosophy, and has a deservedly large following. I’m sure it would be fruitful for us to continue this dialogue, and I hope that eventually we will

Update [Oct. 10, 2004]:

Some of Dennett’s defenders have e-mailed to accuse me of playing “Gotcha”. They say I take two separate parts of Dennett’s interview [A and B in the transcript excerpts above], note that they logically imply the existence of evidence of higher purpose, and then attribute that conclusion to Dennett even though he never states the conclusion explicitly. I want to stress that when I conducted the interview—and when I watched it, and when I wrote that Beliefnet piece—I had no doubt that Dennett had fully grasped the implications of what he said. And, watching the clip now, I still believe he did. From the moment, about four and a half minutes into the clip, when Dennett says, “But I think I see what you’re getting at,” he obviously gets the connection between the two questions (whether evolution resembles ontogeny and whether such a resemblance is evidence of purpose). And his awareness of this connection seems to me evident during the subsequent discussion; indeed, it seems to be the reason that his eventually affirmative answer to both questions comes only after some  resistance. 

I admit that I can’t be absolutely sure that Dennett was consciously aware of the conclusion that seems to me to  follow inescapably from what he said. (And I’m not saying he’s lying when he denies such awareness; the interview happened months ago, and the mind is a funny thing.) My point is just that I attributed that conclusion to him in good faith.

Granted,  I should have used less dramatic language in attributing this conclusion to him. Rather than saying in paragraph 3 of the Beliefnet piece that he had “declared” the existence of evidence of higher purpose, I should have said he “acknowledged” it. (Add this item to my “sensationalism” mea culpa, above.) Still, I want to stress that this sort of hyperbole in the opening of the piece is not what Dennett’s charge of misrepresentation is about. Rather, he is contesting my more nuanced presentation of his view later in the piece, including even the minimalist, “Gotcha” interpretation embodied in this paragraph of the Beliefnet piece:

Dennett's climactic concession may not sound dramatic. He just agrees reluctantly with my assertion that "to the extent that evolution on this planet" has properties "comparable" to those of an organism's maturation—in particular "directional movement toward functionality"—then the possibility that natural selection is a product of design gets more plausible. But remember: He has already agreed that evolution does exhibit those properties. Ergo: By Dennett's own analysis, there is at least some evidence that natural selection is a product of design.

As I’ve explained above, Dennett’s claim that this paragraph misrepresented the views he expressed in the interview continues to strike me as wholly untenable. But I suppose I could be wrong. (My mind, no less than his, is a funny thing.) In any event, if he wants to elaborate further on this claim, I’ll be happy to post the elaboration on this website.

Update [Oct. 19, 2004]:

Here we go again. Dennett has now come up with a new explanation of what he meant when he answered question (A), above, affirmatively. He writes in a recent e-mail:

“What about the growth of life on Earth? … Unlike ontogeny, which does exhibit `directional movement toward

functionality /by design/,’ it exhibits movement toward functionality without design. To the extent that it exhibited movement toward functionality by design, it WOULD be evidence of purpose (but only of the attenuated sort of purpose exhibited by ontogenesis). That is what I agreed to when I answered your question.”

In other words, Dennett now says his position is not what I previously took his position to be—that in answering Question A he was only conceding the patently circular point that design is evidence of design. He now says he was conceding that design is evidence of purpose. (And I gather he will take this position in a reply to me that Beliefnet is scheduled to run, though as I write this it hasn’t yet been posted. [Update: Yes, his reply in Beliefnet takes exactly this position.])

There are two problems with Dennett’s latest position.

One is that the new answer is ultimately as circular as the old answer. Design always implies purpose; organic systems are designed to do certain things (such as spread their genes). So the enigma persists: If Dennett thought that, when I posed Question A, I was asking a tautological question, why didn’t he stop and point that out instead of answering the question earnestly?  

I noted this enigma in an e-mail to Dennett and he replied:

“But philosophers are forever asking each other to confirm, for the sake of the argument, a slightly disguised tautology. Just check out Socrates.  Yes, of course design in some sense implies purpose in some sense. That's what I thought I was acknowledging, and why I was dumfounded by your 'declaring victory'.”


If you watch the video clip, I think you’ll find that, actually, Dennett doesn’t sound like he’s merely acknowledging a slightly disguised tautology. And he doesn’t look “dumbfounded” when I jokingly “declare victory”. Rather, he looks like a man who just paused, pondered a difficult question, then reluctantly conceded a significant analytical point.


But there’s a bigger problem with Dennett’s claim that his answer to my question (question A above) was a statement about the relationship between design and purpose. Namely: I had asked a yes-or-no question that didn’t mention purpose—only design. So how could his “yes” answer—without elaboration—have amounted to a statement about the relationship between design and purpose?


Ever since Dennett started complaining about my interpretation of his videotaped comments, my position has been: If somebody can offer a plausible, coherent alternative interpretation of his comments, then I’ll start taking seriously the possibility that my own plausible and coherent interpretation is wrong. But so far Dennett himself has failed to do that, in spite of repeated attempts. If he makes any more attempts, I’ll assess them here. But don’t hold your breath; I assume he’s as tired of this as I am.


And I can only imagine how tedious this whole thing seems to people other than me and Dennett! In fact, it may well be that no reader of this web page has ever made it down as far as this paragraph.


But if anyone has made it this far, he/she may have two questions: (1) Why do I so obsessively subject Dennett’s claims to close scrutiny? (2) Why does Dennett so relentlessly keep making new claims?


Well, for starters, there’s vanity. I pride myself on accuracy and don’t like being  accused of misrepresenting someone’s views (even though I’ve admitted, above, that in this case I  overdramatized—“hyped” as journalists say—my rendering of Dennett’s views). And I assume that Dennett, who is a hero to legions of atheists, doesn’t want to be seen as having gone all soft and spiritual (even if he did, in a moment of weakness, concede an analytical point that opens the door to the prospect of higher purpose).


But it isn’t just vanity that motivates me. Dennett and Richard Dawkins, by tirelessly asserting the incompatibility of Darwinism and all forms of religion, have made Darwinism a lot of enemies, and may well have increased resistance to the teaching of evolutionism in the public schools. If they were demonstrably right—if their assertions of ultimate purposelessness had some sort of solid empirical or logical grounding—then I wouldn’t complain about this. But on inspection, their assertions turn out to be just that—assertions. And there is at least some evidence that works against those assertions. This is the point I say Dennett conceded in my interview with him, and I think anyone who carefully and objectively appraises the clip in question will agree. (Again, though, I’m not saying he’s being consciously dishonest in denying this. And I admit that I may have impeded his clear assessment of what he said on the videotape by rendering it in melodramatic terms at the outset of the Beliefnet piece. He understandably didn’t recognize this unnuanced rendering of his views, and his subsequent encounter with my more nuanced rendering, several paragraphs later, was probably colored by that fact—and perhaps by the outcry from his alarmed atheist fans that was already building when he first saw the Beliefnet piece. And all of this, remember, was happening many months after the interview itself, which he probably hadn’t thought about since.)


As for why Dennett’s atheist devotees would be so alarmed  by his acknowledging the point I say he acknowledged—well, at the risk of drawing a strained analogy: Why do Christian fundamentalists refuse to acknowledge that some Bible verses are erroneous, even though some verses blatantly contradict other verses? Because if true believers concede that a single part of the scripture is flawed, that opens all scripture up to questioning, and their whole world view is in danger of falling apart. They’d rather not take the first step on what could be a slippery slope. What Dennett conceded during the interview is, in a sense, the atheist’s version of that first step.


Granted, an atheist doesn’t face as slippery a slope as fundamentalists face. If an atheist acknowledges the limited evidence for design I’m positing, that doesn’t open the door to a whole avalanche of such evidence; even I am not asserting that the case for design is on balance compelling—just that it’s more substantial than people like Dennett have generally acknowledged. (And, btw, as I’ve noted elsewhere, I’m not advocating “Intelligent Design.” Dennett and I are both firm Darwinians, and believe natural selection acccounts for the human species.)


Still, even if the atheists’ slope isn’t all that slippery, there are reasons for them to balk at the first step. The concession Dennett (in my view) made on that videotape could be enough to move a person from atheist to agnostic.  Further, this concession highlights the fact I noted above: that Dennett’s assertions of ultimate purposelessness have never rested on any solid logical or empirical foundation. He says of natural selection (rather as monotheists say of God) that it is the undesigned designer, the prime mover of purpose. Well, maybe so. And maybe not. Neither view is self-evidently true or self-evidently false. That’s why I’ve long thought agnosticism  is the most intellectually defensible position one can take: it is just the plain acknowledgment of uncertainty. But some people on both sides of the question—true believers and confirmed atheists—seem to find uncertainty threatening.