Friday, June 09, 2006

Dennett's dangerous word

Actually, not "dangerous" so much as "troublesome."

A while back, I mentioned that I had begun reading Daniel C. Dennett's book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea in part to see if my thinking about God would change as a result. I also said I would be reporting back on what I find. This isn't that post. It is, instead, a rather haphazard meditation on Dennett's use of the word "design" and, for me at least, the unintended but unavoidable tensions that word creates within the context of Dennett's larger discussion of evolutionary theory.

I should say, first of all, that my purpose here isn't to argue that Dennett's argument fails as a result of his vocabulary. Indeed, as you'll see, Dennett's choosing to discuss Darwinism as he does forces him to use the word "design." My only point here is that, given the increased popular attention to Intelligent Design which, coincidentally or not, I first became aware of right about the time Dennett's book came out, he shouldn't be surprised if people have misread him.

The core image Dennett uses in describing natural selection is that it is an enormous biological algorithm: as vast as is the number of species of living things that are alive or have ever been alive, they came into being through, basically, a combination of blind luck in coming into being at all and surviving long enough to pass on their genetic traits to a new generation whose members survived long enough . . . and etc. Natural selection is not an argument for prediction or inevitability or for "higher orders" of things; it simply attempts to explain the extraordinary diversity of living things.

So far, so good. It's when Dennett begins his discussion of organisms at the molecular level that (the potential for) confusion arises. It's about that that point that he argues that engineering and biology have more in common with each other than biologists are usually willing to admit; indeed, before that, he'd been using the terms "skyhooks" (think deus ex machina) and "cranes" (that is, biological mechanisms that explain certain features in living things) to describe people's various attempts to explain--or explain away--evolutionary theory. So, in adopting something of the worldview of engineering in describing organisms and their features, he uses the word "design" quite often to describe them. This, of course, got me to thinking about the connotations of the word as Dennett uses it and as used by IDvocates1.

Both use the word as a noun, but each means it in a different sense. IDers, I take it, are emphasizing the activity of the making of life in their use of "design," that living things' existence isn't happenstance or blind luck but came into being "intelligently." Dennett's sense of the word focuses on the finished--or, more accurately in a Darwinian sense, always-evolving--organism itself. It's a clear difference in usage; only a sloppy or willful misreading would overlook that difference.

And yet. Dennett is a very smart fellow, and he's certainly aware when other writers use vocabulary that can lead to misunderstanding or distortion, as he accuses Stephen Jay Gould of doing. The problem is in what I take to be an uncomfortable marriage that results from discussing biological phenomena in the language of engineering. It's as though he unintentionally but implicitly anthropomorphizes natural selection as a result--the very thing he's arguing against. Surely he's aware that, no matter how clearly he writes, his discussion of biology by borrowing something of the attitude of engineering is going to keep pulling his readers in directions he states, again and again, he denies as even existing as possibilities.

So: why "design" and, for that matter, the borrowing of the attitude and some of the language of engineering? I don't know. I'd have to look again to make sure of this, but as best I recall, Dennett simply states without saying exactly why that, though biologists tend to disagree with him, biology really IS engineering, and then he's off and running. Perhaps I'm making mountains out of molehills here, but after having given this some thought I can readily see why they would disagree with him. There's enough semantic noise surrounding evolutionary theory as it is, even within biology. Why add to it? Why make your job of explication even harder than it already is?
1Not bragging or anything--especially if you think it's dumb--but a quick check of Google seems to indicate that I'm the first person to mean this not as a typo of "advocate" but as "an advocate of Intelligent Design (ID)."

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1 comment:

Winston said...

Without getting into the can of worms known as "genetic engineering", it is not easy to find a meaningful correlation between biology and engineering. Unless, of course, one is an ID disciple, then all things become possible and explainable.

Engineering is the deliberate implementation of known scientific principles to achieve a predetermined objective. Biology, in my way of thinking, has no known objective other than survival. And the survival of the fittest theories are difficult to disprove without resorting to the trickery and blind faith of religious conservatives. And then, once again, all things become possible and explainable.

I am an engineer. I always want quantitative answers. But I am also realistic enough to know that there are things that we as yet do not know. And I am comfortable with that. I do not need to invoke some hocus-pocus to explain the unknown.