From Bacteria to Bach and Back

The Evolution of Minds

Daniel Dennett

Summary: Dennett’s latest attempt at explaining our mind and its evolution.

Score: 75 / 100

It suddenly ended. In the middle of getting to the point! I like Dennett’s view of our mind as he shares a lot with Doug Hofstadter, but this book was quite unsatisfactory.


the grammaticalization process that takes frequently replicated combinations and gradually hardens them into units that can then replicate on their own as combinatorial units.

Might our interpretation of grammars as recursive be rather an elegant mathematical idealization of the actual “moving parts” of a grammar?

If we want a clear idea of intelligent design, we need to resist this retrospective mythmaking and give some attention to the history of the failures, and to all the second-rate design we can identify around us.

no plausible reasons occur to us, the wisdom of our ancestors can be wrung in when necessary: They knew the reasons, and we are grateful that they taught us, even though they didn’t tell us why. It’s a short step from here to God works in mysterious ways.

as Doug Hofstadter once put it, “Anything you can do I can do meta.”

Morris dancing, the Viennese waltz, dressage,

[…] brevity is indeed the soul of wit.

Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.

[…] as some critics have proposed, the truly greatest works of art always travel well, through time and space,

For years and years and years, I thought my brain was the most important organ of my body, until one day I thought, hmm. Look who’s telling me that!

The twentieth-century rebels who made something of a fetish of defying “the canon,” attempting to create works of hyper-originality, are either fading into oblivion or proving that the staying power of their creations is due to more appreciation of their traditions than they were willing to admit.

Socrates famously said, “the unexamined life is not worth living,

Meaning of “how”: How come? vs What for?

For human comprehension, a huge array of thinking tools is required.

[…] the power of our hard-won reflective knowledge being harnessed to improve our future knowledge-gathering abilities:

[…] hypercompetent but deeply unbiological marvel. This is not because computers are made of the wrong kind of stuff but because the stuff they are made of is organized into the wrong kind of hierarchies: Brains are more like termite colonies than intelligently designed corporations or armies.

The puzzle today is “what is consciousness for (if anything)?” if unconscious processes are fully competent to perform all the cognitive operations of perception and control.

[…] that a mystery solved is even more ravishing than the ignorant fantasies it replaces.

Cartesian dualism. This idea that mind isn’t matter and matter can’t be mind.

A good deed might be clumsily executed and even fail in its purpose, while a good tool might be an efficient torture device or evil weapon.

[…] there were reasons long before there were reason-representers—us.

Both Darwin and Turing claim to have discovered something truly unsettling to a human mind—competence without comprehension.

[…] process with no Intelligent Designer can create intelligent designers who can then design things that permit us to understand how a process with no Intelligent Designer can create intelligent designers who can then design things.

They are born “knowing” all they will ever “know”.

A word, like a virus, is a minimal kind of agent: it wants to get itself said.

One of the facts of life, both genetic and cultural, is that options become obligatory. A clever new trick that gives its users a distinct advantage over their peers soon “spreads to fixation,” at which point those who don’t acquire it are doomed.

[…] single hearing of a word can be enough, especially in an interested adult listener, to establish a new vocabulary item, a new generator of word-tokens, but multiple hearings are more likely to make an impression on an infant, almost literally.

takes, on average, about six tokenings of a word in the presence of the child to generate her first clear efforts to say the word, to utter a copy Language evolved to fit the brain before the brain evolved to better accommodate language.53 understanding a word is not the same as having acquired a definition of it. removal of wild wolf pups from their dens by intrepid Carefully chosen technical terms in a scientific field, for instance, are prime examples of fully domesticated memes, patiently taught to the young, with enforced rehearsal and testing. Phonemes protect the boundaries of types so that they can have wildly variant tokens, a requirement for reliable replication. “use a word three times and it’s yours!” We hardly notice that whenever we try to identify an idea to discuss or consider, we identify it by its content another shortcoming of much traditional thinking about culture is the tendency to concentrate on the good stuff and ignore the junk. Mercier and Sperber (2011) argue that the individual human being’s capacity to reason, to express and evaluate logical arguments, arises out of the social practice of persuasion, and it shows fossil traces, in effect, of this origin. our skills were honed for taking sides, persuading others in debate, not necessarily getting things right. Our underlying talent “favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better”

David McFarland (1989), “Communication is the only behavior that requires an organism to self-monitor its own control system.”

Douglas Hofstadter’s “active symbols”

[…] only one step closer to the real me than the access to the real me that is enjoyed by my family and friends.

Being-deemed-valuable-by-influential-hosts is itself a frequent adaptation among memes, and among the more extreme examples are soporific atonal “serious” music and some lineages of contemporary conceptual art that—like laying hens—are so domesticated that they would go extinct in a generation without the assistance of their well-heeled stewards. before an infant will begin trying to imitate a word, it has to have heard about six tokens—six “parents,” The vestigial hand movements so many of us find all but irresistible may in effect be fossil traces of the original languages. as it is in music generally, as a device for providing a mixture of (pleasing) novelty interspersed with (pleasing) familiarity. There is a robust negative statistical correlation between the morphological complexity of a language and the size of the population that speaks it. (Hurford, “Contact between adults speaking different languages tends to produce varieties of language in which morphological complexity is stripped out” An entire community of highly trained professionals [theoretical linguists], bringing to bear years of conscious attention and sharing of information, has been unable to duplicate the feat that every normal child accomplishes by the age of ten or so, unconsciously and unaided.


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published: 2021-03-24
last modified: 2023-01-21