Show

The Philosophical Legacy of Darwin

Week of: 
December 6, 2009
What is it: 

Charles Darwin was born 200 years ago.  His theory of evolution continues to shape our thinking, not only in biology, but also in psychology, economics, and all other attempts to understand human beings including philosophy.  Ken and John delve into Darwin's theory and its implications for philosophy with Daniel Dennett of Tufts University, author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea.

Listening Notes: 

Evolution, what Daniel Dennett calls “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” is far from uncontroversial, even in scientific and philosophic circles. Dan, John and Ken discuss where Darwin’s ideas stand in the modern debates, and it seems that evolutionary arguments are everywhere! So, what are the limits of Darwinism? Can Darwinian thinking really explain why men are prone to rape or how freedom evolved? Are there alternatives to Darwinism which the scientific community could accept?

As far as alternatives to evolution, everyone admits that many very intelligent people such as the philosopher Thomas Nagel have been tempted by intelligent design arguments. But Dan says that such arguments are simply wrong. John agrees that Dan may have successfully refuted these arguments, but he still finds the ‘emotion behind them’ very appealing, the intuition that there must be something else other than ‘cold’ evolution underlying all the wonders of the universe.

How far can evolutionary explanations go? Could there be an evolutionary explanation for our resistance to evolution? Dan says that we as human beings are ‘creators,’ artists, builders, and so on. We model our communal myths (such as religion) upon our own creative abilities. But, Ken wonders, is this an evolutionary explanation? Dan argues that it is at some level, since the members of the species who accepted these myths were more likely to reproduce.

Dan argues that evolution also underlies important differences in gender or even morality, and could help us to understand more complex questions than many people suspect. Basically, the simple reproductive differences between the sexes may account for many of the differences between the genders, including the male propensity to rape. But of course the discussion is left unfinished.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (seek to 6:30): Molly Samuel travels to the Sierra Nevada mountains in a quest for endangered pikas. What does this have to do with Darwin? Well, the tops of mountains are ‘habitat islands,’ isolated ecosystems that are perfect for biologists to study evolution. Thus, just as the Galapagos helped Darwin first understand what species are, mountain tops are helping modern researchers understand how to protect the fragile species of our world.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 49:10): Ian Shoales delves into Darwin’s biography to determine Darwin’s belief in God, an oft-debated claim. Darwin waited almost twenty years to publish origin of species, and many historians wonder if he spent these years wrestling with the religious implications of his work.

Daniel Dennett, Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University.

Related Resources: 
  • Nagel, Thomas (2008). “Public Education and Intelligent Design.” Philosophy & Public Affairs. (download .pdf)

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