Wednesday, April 5, 2017

From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds by Daniel C. Dennett


Daniel C. Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds is an attempt to explain how human minds and the concept of consciousness came to be. This book is a hybrid of natural science, social science and philosophy. Dennett is both a philosopher and a cognitive scientist. I have also read his Consciousness Explained. That work was written in 1991. In many ways, this recent book builds on the earlier work.

This book consists of Dennett laying out and interpreting how he believes minds, both human and animal, evolved. The author covers the origins of life, the evolution of life, brains and cognition. Eventually, Dennett moves on and explores the theory of memes. For those unfamiliar with the theory behind memes, it postulates that human ideas and culture can be broken down into small ideas. Such ideas spawn new ideas, compete with one another, sometimes thrive, sometimes die out, etc. Memes evolve in a way that are similar to genes. Thus, human culture and ideas evolve in a Darwinian fashion. Dennett contends that much of what we consider the human mind and consciousness can be attributed to memes.

This book is very technical in some parts. I found some of it to be difficult to comprehend. The author presupposes a basic understanding of such concepts as evolution, basic biology and other aspects of basic science. I found that most of the science and other technical aspects of the book to be understandable. However, occasionally, the science and technical parts of the book became obtuse. For instance, at one point in the text the author delves into concepts related to Bayesian Probability. I went into this book knowing what Bayesian probability is, and I had a very basic understanding of the concept. However, this rudimentary knowledge turned out to be insufficient for me to fully follow all of Dennett’s arguments. With that, I understood the majority of the science presented in this work.

Where I was most challenged was in my ability to follow all of Dennett’s philosophy and reasoning. A reader more versed in modern philosophy would likely have done better here. With that, even when I had difficulty comprehending particular points, I was usually able understand the main arguments being made and compartmentalize the arguments that I could not understand.

It is important to note that this book comprises a lot of opinion. Dennett has all sorts of ideas on scientific and technical subjects that are not settled. To his credit, in an effort to refute arguments and theories that he does not agree with, the author often presents beliefs that counter his own with some detail. For instance, though many scientists and philosophers embrace the theory of memes, many do not. Dennett is a strong believer in the theory. Despite this, the author elaborates detailed augments against memes.   

Towards the end of the work, Dennett lays out his theory of the mind and consciousness. Dennett's approach is Materialist. He believes that most of what goes on in our brains are automated processes that we have neither access to nor control over. What we consider consciousness is but one “system” that came about though evolution of genes and memes. This conscious system exists primarily to communicate with others. Dennett reasons that we must be able to analyze our own inner mental processes in order to convince, cooperate, compete and interact with other individuals Dennett goes further and speculates that what we call consciousness is mostly illusionary and mainly consists of false explanations of our actions and hidden thought processes.

Dennett acknowledges that his ultimate theory seems difficult to accept. I agree that it is difficult to accept. With that, I think it is important to note certain things about Dennett’s argument. First, the idea that consciousness might be illusionary is somewhat popular with some, but not with all scientists and philosophers who are exploring the human mind. Second, Dennett has a scientific mind, and he admits that he has not fully proven his hypotheses and is making educated guesses based on evidence. He spends the bulk of the work building both evidence and arguments for his beliefs.  Finally, he spells out why, assuming that his model is valid, people would reject it based upon human bias. He writes,

“You might be a zombie, unwittingly taking yourself to have real consciousness with real qualia, but I know that I am not a zombie! No, you don’t. The only support for that conviction is the vehemence of the conviction itself, and as soon as you allow the theoretical possibility that there could be zombies, you have to give up your papal authority about your own nonzombiehood.”

“Zombie” is a term used commonly by scientists and others who explore consciousness. It more or less describes people, animals or machines that are not conscious. The above quote is referring to the fact that people might argue that they have free will and consciousness, but have minds that really only consist of automated process.

Though I am far from convinced that Dennett’s ultimate conclusions are valid, I acknowledge that he has built a compelling case. In addition, the book is filled with lots of real science and intriguing philosophy and insights that are worth exploring.

I have read several books and a lot of articles on the human mind and consciousness, and I think that it is important to keep in mind that there are many views and theories that relate to these issues. Many views are similar to Dennett’s, but many are different. For some alternate theories on the these subjects, I recommend David Chalmers's The Conscious Mind. Chalmers believes that there is something very special about consciousness that is embedded in the Universe itself. This approach is known as Dualism. His book is fascinating but difficult. 

I recommend this book to readers who are not afraid of challenging books. In my opinion, it works best as part of a broader reading plan dedicated to consciousness. At this point, it cannot be considered the final word on this topic. With all of this, in the right context, this is a fascinating read on one of the most intriguing and important of scientific and philosophical topics.


33 comments:

baili said...

Thank you for such a brilliant review .
For me since i start 'thinking" i felt human brain MOST WONDERFUL thing existed in this universe and according to my simple opinion our brain is designed to reveal the mysteries of universe ,both the brain and the universe are equivalent ,as are the questions that this universe provokes will gradually be solved by the human brain .
by the each passing moment the usage of brain is extending and this is the process of growing knowledge .
i would more like to read your recommendation in last the conscious mind it sounds more interesting to me though you told very less about it

Stephen said...

Interesting that he relies so much on memetics. I assume he quotes "The Selfish Gene", then? The very term was Dawkins'...

Tim Davis said...

Interesting! Ever since Plato (Allegory of the Cave), and even before, we've been trying to figure out how we know what we know, and if we know what we think we know (i.e., all that reality v. illusion stuff). Your well-written review persuades me that the book is far beyond my mind, so I at least know that much, and I will remain in my cave and watch the shadows on the wall.

Gently Mad said...

Hi Brian. Very good review. I feel as though I have read the book thanks to your good summary.

I suppose people like the author base their premise that we are an evolutionary sum of parts. Based on that premise he then builds his theory as to how we came to be. He cannot answer why.

It's like the mathematical branch called "Graph Theory" which requires a mathematically grounded equation that creates a chain of "If this must be true, then this must also be true."

Someone I once knew was writing his dissertation in Graph Theory and he had to come up with an original theorem. He said that he and his supervising professor would build on a premise for months only to have it all come crashing down when confronted by an irrefutable truth that contradicted everything else.

I think in this case there are truths that destroy his premise and as you say, he seems to connect his "truths" with assumptions. In other words, it is inappropriate to mix science (the how) with philosophy (the why).

Thanks again for an informative and even handed review. Take care!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon.

I think that science and scientific discoveries are profoundly important and thus they are fair game for philosophy. I also think it is important that the philosopher is honest about what is philosophy and speculations and what is science, One thing about Dennett that I like is that he is honest about this.

Dennett does make a lot of suppositions and inferences. But he is honest and upfront that he speculating.

He actually devotes many pages specifically to his opinions "why" as well as what people mean when they ask why?

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Bailli.

I agree that our brains and our minds are revealing the mysteries and secrets of the Universe. This is one of the wonders of existence.

It has been years since I read The Conscious Mind. I would not be able to write meaningful commentary on it without a reread. I wanted to give an example of a thoughtful but alternate view of the human mind.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks R.T. Dennett does go back and spends a few pages talking about historical thinkers like Plate and Descartes.

It sounds like you have already taken a gaze or two outside the cave :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephen - Dennett talks a lot about Dawkins and does give him credit for memes as well as other discoveries and theories. I believe that the two are friends and have appeared together on various panels and events.

James said...

Great review. As a fan of Dennett I should consider this. He can be challenging but his ideas are fascinating.

Mudpuddle said...

i highly recommend Bruce Hood's "The Self Illusion"... he's an experimental psychologist in England who provides physical data for the concept that consciousness is a product of the interrelationships of neural centers in the brain... he convinced me, anyway, although i already believed that anyhow...

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James. This is such an interesting topic.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for the recommendation Mudpuddlle.I have not read Hood. It sounds like he is also Materialist.

This is such an interesting topic. There are all sorts of well reasoned and interesting ideas related to it.

CyberKitten said...

I have a few of his books but haven't managed to read any of them yet. The mind/brain problem is an interesting one and, like Dennett, I'm a Materialist (in all things) so believe that the electrical activity in the brain 'creates' the mind as an on-going moment by moment phenomena. When electrical activity stops we simple cease to be and vanish like smoke in the wind.

My 'jury' is still out on the existence of an 'I', a unique 'Me' somehow inhabiting this brain of mine. I have more than a suspicion that the feeling of personal identity is nothing more than a convenient fiction - a necessary and adaptive illusion.

Oh, and I can definitely recommend Hood's other book 'The Domesticated Brain'. It's very good and full of insights - especially to those out there who have marveled at watching their children grow up in front of them.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CyberKitten - Dennett also thinks that the sense of "I" is an illusion.

I am not with Dennett on that, but I grant that it may be possible. Otherwise I tend to favor the Materialists.

Modern Duelists like David Chalmers and Roger Penrose tend to believe that the complexity of our brains is somehow tied to the physical laws of the Universe. They believe in physical laws, they just think a lot more of them need to be discovered that relate to consciousness. They believe that this relationship will eventually be proved by science. Ina sense they are more like the Materialists then the older Duelists who believed in supernatural explanations.

Suko said...

Brain Joseph, this book sounds like food for thought. I found it interesting that you mention memes--so prevalent in the blogging world today! (To me, memes are a framework form which we build.) Anyway, this book sounds fascinating, and the cover picture strongly hints at the abstract thought it contains.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - I was also thinking about Blogging Memes. I think that the two concepts are related.

The cover art is indeed appropriate and well done.

Suko said...

Sorry about my typo in your name, that I just noticed! I often type Brain instead of Brian.

Maria Behar said...

OUTSTANDING review as usual, Brian!! KUDOS TO YOU!!! :) :) :)

Needless to say, this is a vast, complex, and totally FASCINATING topic. However, it's also a daunting one for us non-scientists. Your insights are a valuable prelude to reading the book itself!

I had not heard of the theory of memes before, nor did I know that it was Dawkins who had coined the term. I've only heard the word "meme" used in the context of book blogging. As you know, many blogs have book memes, which are also blog hops, as participants link up to the hosting blog.

As for the word itself in relation to the general culture, I'm wondering if it can be equated with the word "trend". I often see announcements on Twitter stating that such-and-such a topic is "trending".

The idea that intellectual constructs undergo a process of evolution that mimics the biological one is a very interesting one. It also brings to mind the concept -- now a reality -- of artificial intelligence. I wonder if this is how computers are programmed to 'react' to input given to them, and thus, are able to 'think' much like humans do.

As for topics such as Bayesian probability, I'd have to do some Googling first in order to find out what that even is, lol. And I'm not sure I'd understand the Wikipedia article. So thanks for acknowledging just how difficult this book is to follow, in some places! :)

Of course, as a Christian, I don't entirely agree with Dennett's materialistic viewpoint. My position on evolution is that I see no reason why God could not have used such a process to create the universe and everything in it, including humans. Dinosaur fossils are, after all, indisputable evidence that the beings -- animal and human -- we're currently surrounded by have not always looked as they do today.

Having stated the above, I also see no reason why the process of biological evolution should not be applied to ideas, although I do not concur with Dennett that MOST of our brain processes are automatic. The mind is not the brain, as other scientists have asserted. Thus, I cannot accept that the words I'm typing right now are "an automatic process". Yes, my fingers are moving automatically as I write. But my mind is engaging in a reasoning process as I go along. Or am I deluded in this? Hmmmm.... My words do seem to be flowing, as if by themselves. However, I can't help but think this is NOT an automatic process. The mind is the seat of consciousness, not the brain.

Well, this has sparked all sorts of questions, and I can almost feel my neurons firing off boom, boom, boom at each other, as they scramble to find adequate responses....lol.

As for zombies, OMG. Of course, urban fantasy literature immediately comes to mind. And I absolutely LOATHE these creatures, even though I know they're fictional. So I heartily wish that scientists would come up with some other term to refer to beings that are not conscious. The use of the term to describe machines seems rather ludicrous. Of course, if AI continues to develop at its current rapid pace, we might indeed be able to refer to conscious machines in the not-so-distant future. This is a rather sobering, and even frightening, thought.

Thanks so much for your thought-provoking post, which I know I need to come back and re-read!! Have a WONDERFUL weekend!! <3 :)

Maria Behar said...

P.S. I LOVE the picture on the cover! It's a painting by Wassily Kandinsky, one of my favorite artists. I'm being optimistic, and adding this book to my Goodreads shelves! Lol.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

According to the theory of Meme, trends are memes. So is any other human idea that changes. Words are also memes. Memes bundle themselves and are sometimes organized. For instance, a particular religion consists of lots of bundles of memes.

I think that the term we use in book blogging is related.

I agree with you. Belief in God does not rule out belief in things like evolution, brain science, etc. If there is a God, he or she obviously created a Universe where almost everything is built up upon physical laws and natural processes that can be explained by science.

I believe that your view of consciousness falls under the realm of Dualism. David Chalmers makes a strong argument for it in his The Conscious Mind.

I thought that you would like the cover :)

Have a great weekend.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Ha ha! I did not even notice!

thecuecard said...

Oh gosh this one might be beyond me. It sounds technical and challenging. I'm sure your understanding of the subject matter is far superior than mine. Do you think scientists will ever know for sure which conclusions are right about consciousness?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I think that we will eventually know a lot more about consciousness then we do now. With that, some of what folks call "big question : about consciousness may be more philosophy then science. Therefore there may always be differing opinions.

The Reader's Tales said...

Hi Brian. Very good review. I feel as though I wouldn't understand this very technical and philosophical book. I'm not that intelligent for such a high scientific subject
I wish you a happy Easter (I came back last night).

Brian Joseph said...

Hi The Reader's Tales - This is a challenging book. I think that the effort needed here is only worth it if one reads multiple books on the subject.

Have a Happy Easter!

Caroline said...

I think this would have been for me while I was still at uni and many of the concepts would have been fresh, and part if a broader reading plan as you say at the end. Now I'm afraid I'd be a bit lost too at times. Still, it sounds fascinating.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - What I have found about these books on the human mind, is that there is a enough divergent ideas out there so that reading a bunch of articles and books works best. I do not know if there is a coherent summary of all the reputable ideas all in one place.

Kate Scott said...

This sounds like a fascinating book. I like the fact that he's not afraid to put his opinion out there, even if it can't be proven. Sometimes it's good just to read about new ideas and get the mental juices flowing. I'm also curious about what the "bacteria" in the title refers to. I've sort of peripherally covered the co-evolution of the humans and bacteria (mitochondria, the microbiome, etc.) in my readings/research on medicine and biology but I haven't read anything about bacteria and consciousness–apart from how bacteria can influence mood and mental health, though I'm not really sure that's the same thing.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kate - The convolution thing is fascinating. What Dennett is referring to in regards to bacteria is the beginnings of life and evolution. He sees the entire process as steps toward the development of the human brain.

So many books, so little time said...

Books like this always seem so fascinating and people have such varied opinions. I think I would read this and end up going off looking for more on the same subjects, as you say many many opinions in it and everyone has their own. I read a Dawkins book a few years back and ended up having to put it down a lot to go google lots of things he said & put forward. I think I would be the same here.

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - This is such a fascinating but enigmatic subject that one wants to read more books on it as soon as one is finished with one book.

I think that Dawkins is a better explainer of science and technical issues. I find that Dennett is much more challenging.

Stefanie said...

Sounds really interesting and challenging on not just the comprehension level but on a personal psychological level too. I guess Dennett thinks Decartes' "I think therefore I am" premise an invalid one?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephanie - Dennett spends a few pages on Descartes' He identifies him as him as duelist, that is, one who believes the mind is seperate from the physical brain. Dennett, while recognizing Descartes genius, spends much of the book arguing against that view.