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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

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