The Richards/Dennett debate: Did Darwin think evolution was waiting for us?

Daniel Dennett chatting with Robert Richards at the Darwin/Chicago 2009 conference

Daniel Dennett chatting with Robert Richards at the Darwin/Chicago 2009 conference. Credit: Jerry Coyne

By Jeremy Manier

The philosopher Daniel Dennett looked slightly puzzled as Robert Richards finished his Oct. 30 talk at the Darwin/Chicago 2009 meeting, on the subject of “Darwin’s Biology of Intelligent Design.” Dennett and Richards have spent years writing about Darwin and the historical significance of his ideas about evolution. But Richards’ talk challenged a central theme of Dennett’s influential book, “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” – that Darwin revolutionized modern thought by showing that a mindless, mechanical process can give rise to complexity and minds capable of understanding their origins. In fact, Richards argued that Darwin did not always envision evolution as mindless or mechanical. Richards cited out passage after passage in Darwin’s notebooks and early published writing, showing that he thought of humanity as “the great object for which the world was brought into its present state.” He didn’t talk about an intelligence guiding evolution, but he was comfortable – at least before the 1860s – with the idea of an intelligence behind natural laws.

In other words, Darwin once believed that we are the ones evolution was waiting for.

I walked up to Dennett after Richards’ talk and briefly asked what he thought. Dennett shrugged and shook his head. “I don’t believe it,” he said.

He’s not alone. The question is, why should anyone care? What does it matter if a 19th-Century naturalist thought a higher intelligence might have planned out evolution in some vague way? Lots of Darwin’s other notions got jettisoned along the way (blending inheritance, anyone?), so why should this one be different?

In part it may be because of the unusual – and possibly unhealthy – role that Darwin has assumed in debates about biology and human nature. He is an especially potent figure for creationists and atheists alike, because in many ways he made modern atheism possible. It muddles the picture if, as Richards said, Darwin’s theory “was formulated under the idea that an intelligent cause formulated the laws of nature.”

But it’s also clear that Darwin believed in that “intelligent cause” less and less as he got older. He’s still an important author of modern materialism, though perhaps a mushier one than we often imagine. Dennett admitted the possibility in his talk – “It would be wonderfully ironic, Bob, if the person we honor for having the best idea ever didn’t understand his own idea,” Dennett said. “But I don’t think that’s the case.”

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