Daniel Dennett 2017. From Bacteria to Bach and Back. The evolution of minds. New York: W.W. Norton. 476 pp.

In this long, rambling and uninformative book, Daniel Dennett seeks to show that a plausible process exists for the evolution of minds. That the Cartesian duality cannot be accepted. That top down AI does not work. That evolution explains biology including studies of the mind. And long-winded justifications of a host of other unremarkable propositions that have long been accepted by biologists. But apparently not by some philosophers, who would otherwise be lacking the mind as a topic to produce words on (with their minds).

A persistent reader will finally encounter a reasonable précis of this book in the opening sentence of chapter 14:

At last we are ready to … examine human consciousness as a system of virtual machines that evolved, genetically and memetically, to play very specialized roles in the “cognitive niche” our ancestors have constructed over the millennia.

But although many concepts are described and much literature drawn on, there is nothing in here in the way of mechanism or other substantial or original contribution that could illuminate the evolution of consciousness. It is all just words, theories, alternatives, maybes, possibilities. All very disappointing.

A few interesting observations and propositions stuck with me:

  • On page 200, the assertion that words/sounds are unlikely to survive unless they can be digitised (I think Dennett means atomised). However, this interesting assertion is not supported by a reasoned argument. He then goes on to talk about memes, words as memes, the origin of language, but other than the atomisation statement nowhere is there an explanation for the origin of words.

  • On page 263, the idea that words are memes, and selection among memes may overcome non-adaptive early stages in language evolution (But see contra view of Pinker, p. 316 ff.)

  • On p. 271 the quote from p. 147 of Hurford 2014 The origins of language: a slim guide.:

There is a robust negative statistical correlation between the morphological complexity of a language and the size of the population that speaks it.

  • In the footnote at the bottom of page 299 I was very glad to be told Plato’s description of one’s knowledge as an aviary filled with birds; they are your birds, but do they come when you call?

  • On p. 301 ff. offering the idea that language can be thought of as a virtual machine. (And so can many other aspects of culture, and of mind.)

There is an extensive bibliography, mostly philosophy works, but it is incomplete; many references cited in the text are missing from endnotes and from bibliography.