cover image From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds

From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds

Daniel C. Dennett. Norton, $28.95 (448p) ISBN 978-0-393-24207-2

Dennett (Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking), co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, combines arguments from philosophy, biology, and informatics to explore questions associated with the origin of consciousness. It is an illuminating and insightful, if occasionally difficult, book; Dennett’s two overarching themes concern the philosophical ideas of René Descartes and the biological concepts of Charles Darwin. As he has done before, Dennett argues that Cartesian mind/body dualism, which is still accepted by many today, is incorrect. He makes a convincing case, based on a rapidly growing body of experimental evidence, that a materialist theory of mind is within reach. Dennett also builds on Darwin’s idea of natural selection, explaining how natural systems can create “competence without comprehension”—that is, situations in which sophisticated actions occur without the individual or machine involved understanding the reasons for the actions taken. This type of “bottom-up” design, according to Dennett, can lead to innovative results, including animal brains. He takes the next step to propose that basic language acquisition ability is coupled with the memes of language to yield both consciousness and culture. Though Dennett is sure to once again raise the hackles of certain peers, his ideas demand serious consideration. (Feb.)