Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back is a lengthy and winding journey. It is characterized (including by its publisher) as a general explanation of the evolution of minds and various peculiar mental functions, consciousness and language being the two most hotly discussed by philosophers, but there’s a better way to read it. As its best, the book is a tour of Dennett’s personal philosophical repertoire, illustrating how ideas from his books and papers fit together.
Dennett’s general theory of the development of genetics stems from his broad theory of memes, where a meme is any informational entity that can be transmitted and replicated. The rough idea is that minds are meme-machines in the way that organisms are gene-machines (in Dawkins’ analogy of the gene’s-eye-view). This is a fruitful analogy, in some respects, though I think it can and should draw some skepticism from readers. I’ll return to those worries later.
The basic building blocks of Dennett’s view are indicated by gestures and short explanations, which is a challenge since he’s spent so much time discussing and arguing for them elsewhere in his work. In any case, there are really two that it is important to understand.
The first is what Dennett calls the Intentional Stance, the eponymous idea in one of his books. Dennett’s view is that we ascribe intentionality (the presence of beliefs, desires, etc.) to systems as a way of predicting their behavior. If I say, “The thermostat wants to keep the room at 72 degrees,” this has predictive power regarding the behavior of that thermostat. It isn’t meant to be an actual account of the thermostat as some entity that has thoughts about whether or not it is cold in my apartment and then makes adjustments, but rather a description that allows us to predict its behavior.
The thermostat example can seem silly, because the behaviors are not so complicated, but when talking about the behavior of countries or organisms or weather patterns the stance is useful, though perhaps a bit imprecise.
In my experience, philosophers of biology and biologists are pretty skeptical of the intentional stance, partly because it makes things sound teleological, and those around biology are (rightly) nervous about those sorts of things. I think Dennett addresses those worries fairly well, and he does acknowledge (from the original presentation through Bacteria to Bach) that the intentional stance isn’t actually talking about thinking thermostats.
The second is probably more familiar to those who know Dennett’s mainstream stuff; what he calls “Darwin’s Strange Inversion of Reasoning.” (The Turing bits in the Atlantic article also appear in the book, and I think are particularly fascinating, but I won’t dwell on them here.) In short, he likes MacKenzie’s slogan: “in order to make a perfect and beautiful machine, it is not a prerequisite to know how to make it.”
The second is now widely accepted within virtually all domains of academia, though Dennett flogs the point a bit in his discussion of the intellectual laziness of the intelligent design folks. In short, there are lots of things that can and are done by organisms without knowledge of precisely how they do them; things from forming sentences and ascribing moods to anticipating the movements of traffic and organizing novel tasks.
Memes are informational entities that want (under the intentional stance) to be transmitted and replicated. In order to facilitate this replication, they do something interesting. They stick together to develop more and more complex memes and meme-structures, and proliferate through the natural world, building up in complexity. Like genes under Dawkins’ story of evolution, just by performing this simple task of replication and transmission, they wind up developing into more and more sophisticated sentences.
Dennett is particularly fond of the linguistic cases, and for good reason; phonemes become words, and words become sentences, and sentences develop into even more complex entities and allow for the expression and formation of other (non-linguistic) memes. In fact, the development of natural languages is basically the paradigm case of Dennett’s view. These memes, through the natural processes of their promiscuity, create these complex entities that are the explanatory object of Dennett’s book: culture, language, and consciousness.
There are a few worries for the argument advanced in the course of this discussion. The first is that it isn’t really clear how much of a journey over these phenomena Dennett’s story offers. Surely, Dennett offers a framework for the explanation of these phenomena, but that’s not really the same as the sort of developed story the project description suggests… then again, that sort of project would be “ambitious,” to borrow the euphemism for “completely ridiculous” my polite Kiwi thesis advisor prefers.
The more serious worries fall into two camps. The first is a general critique of the general approach to the genes-eye-view/memes-eye-view approach, a line of argument with which I’ve familiarized myself after sharing an office with an unabashed Gould-ite. (Sadly, Okasha’s criticism is paywalled… but for those with academic access, it’s very good.)
One version goes like this: while it’s useful to talk about the role of lower level constituents in advancing selection, that story only takes you so far. The genes and memes can do lots of things, they can be ambitious and promiscuous and ubiquitous, and still get suppressed or even destroyed by certain high-level phenomena exerting selection pressures, like diseases killing off their respective hosts. I don’t think this is really a slamming critique of either Dawkins or Dennett as much as pointing out that their story can’t be complete. There’s other stuff that has to be included that won’t be mapped adequately.
The second worry is really my own; memes are interesting, to be sure, but they’re so broadly defined on Dennett’s view that they really are just a basic functional description. As a result, it seems hard to say much that’s really deep about them. Even very abstract views making using of general concepts, like Dretske’s use of information give a clearer sense of the prospective application.
Lots of the things that are memes (e.g. words, musical riffs, gestures) have interesting features; the thing is, they don’t seem to have any of those features (beyond the definitional notion of their copy-ability) in virtue of their being memes.
Some of those features are importantly different, result in sameness across token instances or transformations from one token to another. It is hard for me to see what the upshot of memetics beyond on a few general corollaries, and some of the corollaries (e.g. features of language like compositionality) aren’t going to be true for certain domains (e.g. cultures). At that point, why not just acknowledge that the approach is best handled through the diverse scientific and social scientific domains that work on the individual phenomena? Seems more practical.
This objection leaves me in an odd position. On the one hand, I find the idea that we ought to pursue something like “memetics” unconvincing, because I’m not sure it does anything except point out a similarity between diverse, clearly applicable disciplines like linguistics, physical and cultural anthropology, sociology, evolutionary biology, and so on. On the other, I find Dennett’s perspective on these issues incredibly useful and interesting. Even where I disagree with him, he is one of the most important philosophers in recent history, and the book is a nice mash-up of his greatest hits.
I am fortunate to be a part of a community that includes some of the best up-and-comers in philosophy of biology (as well as some veterans, but they didn’t help me out with this); special thanks to my colleagues Celso Neto and Alison McConwell, who talked through some of this stuff with me as I was reading the book.