Allen Lane £20, 347pp £18 (plus £1.99 p&p per order) from 0870 8001122

Freedom Evolves by Daniel C Dennett

Does human evolution move onwards and upwards towards liberty and progress? John Gray suspects that chance and cruelty also play their part

If natural selection had been discovered in India, China or Japan, it is hard to imagine it making much of a stir. Darwin's discovery signalled a major advance in human knowledge, but its cultural impact came from the fact that it was made in a milieu permeated by the Judaeo-Christian belief in human uniqueness. If – along with hundreds of millions of Hindus and Buddhists – you have never believed that humans differ from everything else in the natural world in having an immortal soul, you will find it hard to get worked up by a theory that shows how much we have in common with other animals.

Among us, in contrast, it has triggered savage and unending controversy. In the 19th century, the conflict was waged between Darwinists and Christians. Now, the controversy is played out between Darwinism and humanists, who seek to defend a revised version of Western ideas about the special nature of humans.

In Freedom Evolves, Daniel Dennett has produced the most powerful and ingenious attempt at reconciling Darwinism with the belief in human freedom to date. Writing with a verve that puts to shame the leaden prose that has become the trademark of academic philosophy, Dennett presents the definitive argument that the human mind is a product of evolution, not something that stands outside the natural world.

Making full use of his seminal writings on consciousness, he contends that we do not need to believe in free will to be able to think of ourselves as responsible moral beings. On the contrary, moral agency is a by-product of natural selection. In that sense, it is an accident; but once it has come about, we can "bootstrap ourselves" into freedom. The evolution of human culture enables us to be free as no other animal can be. "Human freedom," Dennett writes, "is not an illusion; it is an objective phenomenon, distinct from all other biological conditions and found in only one species, us."

The ringing tone of Dennett's declaration of human uniqueness provokes a certain suspicion regarding the scientific character of his argument. After all, the notion that humans are free in a way that other animals are not does not come from science. Its origins are in religion – above all, in Christianity.

Philosophical interest in uncaused events is found beyond the Christian world, among ancient Epicureans for example; but the obsession with reconciling scientific determinism with freedom is characteristic of cultures that have shed Christianity but wish to retain the belief in the special standing of humans that Christianity once assured. No one who did not share the Judaeo-Christian notion that humans have a kind of freedom denied to other animals would labour so devoutly to show that it is compatible with scientific knowledge.

In fact, despite all his impassioned protestations to the contrary, Dennett is seeking to salvage a view of humankind derived from Western religion. To be sure, he wants to demolish the metaphysical belief in freedom of the will that has been the foundation of this view in the past – but only in order to give it another, more solid foundation in contemporary science. Like many others over the past 100 years or so, Dennett looks to evolution for the moral uplift that used to be afforded by religion.

He avoids many of the errors of reasoning that trapped evolutionist thinkers like Julian Huxley, such as the naturalistic fallacy of defining the good in terms of evolutionary change. Even so, his aim is the same as these earlier thinkers': to reinstate the unique standing of humans by showing that it is grounded in an evolutionary process. The result is a sort of humanist variation on the "process theology" concocted by philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead.

In developing his conception of evolving freedom, Dennett relies heavily on Richard Dawkins' theory of memes: ideas that compete with one another in a way analogous to natural selection in biology. The trouble with this unhappy metaphor is that there is no known mechanism for the spread of ideas akin to the transmission of genes. The history of ideas is made largely by political power and human folly – not through the workings of natural selection.

If there is no Cathar religion today, the reason is not that natural selection has weeded out the memes that composed the Cathar belief-system. It is that the Cathars were persecuted into extinction. Moreover, even if there were something like a mechanism for the natural selection of ideas, its results could be deeply regressive from an ethical point of view. Think of anti-Semitism, a highly versatile meme that continues to replicate itself virulently. Successful memes include some that express humanity's worst traits. Evolution is one thing, progress another.

Dennett is vastly more sophisticated a thinker than Huxley, but like him he seems to derive a curious comfort from the belief that human culture is an evolving process. Perhaps, like Huxley, he cannot help identifying himself with the evolutionary process and imagining that it is working obscurely to replicate his own values; but if there is such a thing as cultural evolution, it is no less blind, purposeless and value-free than biological evolution.

Dennett describes human history as a "communal process of memetic engineering" – a saga that includes, he tells us, his own book. He seems not to have digested the fact that the world is full of memetic engineers who do not share his values, some of them using methods rather more effective than philosophical argument, and who are as much a part of cultural evolution as he is himself.

John Gray is Professor of European Thought at the LSE

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning