Intelligent Design is once again making headlines in the United States. But what is the attraction? Daniel Dennett spoke with SPIEGEL about the attraction of creationism, how religion itself succumbs to Darwinian ideas, and the social irresponsibility of the religious right in America.
Can Darwinism explain the creation of the universe as well?
Professor Dennett, more than 120 million Americans believe that God created Adam our of mud some 10,000 years ago and made Eve from his rib. Do you personally know any of these 120 million?
Dennett: Yes. But people who are creationists are usually not interested in talking about it. Those who are actually enthusiastic about Intelligent Design, though, would talk endlessly. And what I learned about them is that they are filled with misinformation. But they've encountered this misinformation in very plausible sources. Its not just their pastor that tells them this. They go out and they buy books that are published by main line publishers. Or they go on Web sites and they see very clever propaganda that is put out by the Discovery Institute in Seattle, which is financed by the religious right.
SPIEGEL: In the center of the debate is the theory of evolution. Why is it that evolution seems to produce much more opposition than any other scientific theory such as the Big Bang or quantum mechanics?
Dennett: I think it is because evolution goes right to the heart of the most troubling discovery in science of the last few hundred years. It counters one of the oldest ideas we have, maybe older even than our species.
SPIEGEL: Which is what exactly?
Dennett: It's the idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing. I call that the trickle-down theory of creation. You'll never see a spear making a spear maker. You'll never see a horse shoe making a blacksmith. You'll never see a pot making a potter. It is always the other way around and this is so obvious that it just seems to stand to reason.
SPIEGEL: You think this idea was already present in apes?
Dennett: Maybe in Homo Habilus, the handyman, who began making stone tools some 2 million years ago. They had a sense of being more wonderful that their artifacts. So the idea of a creator that is more wonderful than the things he creates is, I think, a very deeply intuitive idea. It is exactly this idea that promoters of Intelligent Design speak to when they ask, 'did you ever see a building that didn't have a maker, did you ever see a painting that didn't have a painter.' That perfectly captures this deeply intuitive idea that you never get design for free.
SPIEGEL: An ancient theological argument...
Dennett: ... which Darwin completely impugns with his theory of natural selection. And he shows, hell no, not only can you get design from un-designed things, you can even get the evolution of designers from that un-design. You end up with authors and poets and artists and engineers and other designers of things, other creators -- very recent fruits of the tree of life. And it challenges people's sense that life has meaning.
SPIEGEL: Even the spirit of humans -- his soul -- is produced in this manner?
Dennett: Yes. As a multi-cellular, mobile life form, you need a mind because you have to look out where you are going. You have got to have a nervous system, which can extract information from the world fast and can refine that information and put it to use quickly to guide your behavior. The basic problematic for all animals is finding what they need and avoiding what could hurt them and doing it faster than the opposition. Darwin understood this law and understood that this development has been going on for hundreds of millions of years producing ever more android minds.
SPIEGEL: But still, something out of the ordinary happened when humans came along.
Dennett: Indeed. Humans discovered language -- an explosive acceleration of the powers of minds. Because now you can not just learn from your own experience, but you can learn vicariously from the experience of everybody else. From people that you never met. From ancestors long dead. And human culture itself becomes a profound evolutionary force. That is what gives us an epistemological horizon and which is far, far greater than that of any other species. We are the only species that knows who we are, that knows that we have evolved. Our songs, art, books and religious beliefs are all ultimately a product of evolutionary algorithms. Some find that thrilling, others depressing.
SPIEGEL: Nowhere does evolution become so apparent than in the DNA code. Nevertheless, those who believe in Intelligent Design find the DNA code less problematic than the ideas of Darwin. Why is that?
Dennett: I don't know, because it seems to me that the very best evidence we have for the truth of Darwin's theory is the evidence that arrives every day from bioinformatics, from understanding the DNA-coding. The critics of Darwinism just don't want to confront the fact that molecules, enzymes and proteins lead to thought. Yes, we have a soul, but it's made up of lots of tiny robots.
SPIEGEL: Don't you think it's possible to leave life to the biologists, but let religion take care of the soul?
Dennett: That's what Pope John Paul II was demanding when he issued his oft-quoted cyclical in which he said that evolution was a fact, but he went right on to say: except on the matter of the human soul. That might make some content, but it is just false. It would be just as false to say: Our bodies are made up of biological material, except, of course, the pancreas. The brain is no more wonder tissue than the lungs or the liver. It's just a tissue.
SPIEGEL: Darwin's ideas have been misused by racists and eugenicists. Is this also one of the reasons that Darwinism is so energetically attacked?
Dennett: Yes. I think the gentler way of putting it is that the Darwinian idea is very simple -- you can explain it to somebody in a minute. But for that very reason, it is also extremely vulnerable to caricature and misuse. I very patiently teach my students the basics of evolutionary theory and then I have to go back and clean up after myself, because they get very enthusiastic about it and they keep falling into these misunderstandings. Darwinism is mind candy, it's delicious. But the thing is, having too much candy can distract from the truth. And that can play into the hands of people who are racist or sexist. So you have to maintain a sort of intellectual hygiene at all times.
SPIEGEL: It seems that everything -- from adultery to rape to murder -- is being analyzed in the light of evolution these days. How can one separate serious research from the candy?
Religion must be incomprehensible to be successful, says Dennett.
SPIEGEL: Your colleague Michael Ruse has accused you of stepping out of the field of science and into social science and religion with your theories. He's even said you are inadvertently aiding the Intelligent Design movement as a result.
Dennett: Michael is just trying to put the implications of Darwin's insights into soft focus and to reassure people that there is not as much conflict between the perspective of evolutionary biology and their traditional ways of thinking.
SPIEGEL: And what about the accusation that you are aiding Intelligent Design?
Dennett: There is probably an element of truth to it. I've just finished writing a book in which I look at religion from the perspective of evolutionary biology. I think you can, should, and even must take this route. Others say 'no, hands off! Just don't let evolution get anywhere near the social sciences.' I think that's terrible advice. The idea that we should protect the social sciences and humanity from evolutionary thinking is a recipe for disaster.
Dennett: I would give Darwin the gold medal for the best idea anybody ever had. It unifies the world of meaning and purpose and goals and freedom with the world of science, with the world of the physical sciences. I mean, we talk about the great gap between social science and natural science. What closes that gap? Darwin -- by showing us how purpose and design, meaning, can arise out of purposelessness, out of just brute matter.
SPIEGEL: Is Darwinism at work every time something new is created? Even at the creation of the universe for example?
Part II: "Religious right is socially irresponsible"
DNA research, says Dennett, provides the most convincing arguments against creationism.
SPIEGEL: Another idea of Nietzsche's was that God is dead. Is that also a logical conclusion reached by Darwinism?
Dennett: It is a very clear consequence. The argument for design, I think, has always been the best argument for the existence of God and when Darwin comes along, he pulls the rug out from under that.
SPIEGEL: Evolution, in other words, leaves no room for God?
Dennett: One has to understand that God's role has been diminished over the eons. First we had God, as you said, making Adam and making every creature with his hands, plucking the rib from Adam and making Eve from that rib. Then we trade that God in for the God who sets evolution in motion. And then you say you don't even need that God -- the law giver -- because if we take these ideas from cosmology seriously then there are other places and other laws and life evolves where it can. So now we no longer have God the law finder or the law giver, but just God the master of ceremonies. When God is the master of ceremonies and doesn't actually play any role any more in the universe, he's sort of diminished and no longer intervenes in any way.
SPIEGEL: How is it, then, that many natural scientists are religious? How does that go together with their work?
Dennett: It goes together by not looking too closely at how it goes together. It's a trick we can all do. We all have our ways of compartmentalizing our lives so that we confront contradictions as seldom as possible.
SPIEGEL: But this compartmentalizing has a positive side as well: Natural science talks about life whereas religion deals with the meaning of life.
Dennett: Fine. A boundary. But the trouble is that the boundary moves. And as it moves, the job description for God shrinks. I, too, stand in awe of the universe. It's wonderful, I'm so happy to be here, I think it's a great place for all its faults, I love being alive. The problem is: There's nobody to be grateful to. There's nobody to express my gratitude to.
SPIEGEL: But religion surely gives us moral standards and provides guidance on how to behave.
Dennett: If that's what religion does, then I don't think it is such a silly idea. But it doesn't. Religions at their best serve as excellent social organizers. They make moral teamwork a much more effective force than it otherwise would be. This, however, is a two-edged sword. Because moral teamwork depends to a very large degree on ceding your own moral judgment to the authority of the group. And that can be extremely dangerous, as we know.
SPIEGEL: But religion still helps us to set moral standards.
Dennett: But are we only morally good so that we get rewarded in heaven; so that God will punish us for our sins and reward us for good behavior? I find this idea extremely patronizing. It is offensive in that it suggests that that's the only reason people are moral. Do we only, for example, behave well to get 76 virgins in paradise? That's an idea that many in the West would scoff at.
SPIEGEL: Why then do pretty much all cultures have religion?
Dennett: I think the answer to that question is partly historical in the sense that traditions that survive evolve adaptations for surviving. So that religions themselves are extremely well designed cultural phenomena that have evolved to survive.
SPIEGEL: Like a biological species.
Does religion provide us with a moral roadmap?
SPIEGEL: Do successful religions have similar features?
Dennett: They all have to have features for prolonging their own identity -- and a lot of these are actually interestingly similar to what you find in biology, too.
SPIEGEL: Can you give an example?
Dennett: Many religions started before there was writing. How do you get high fidelity preservation of texts before you have texts? Group singing and recitation are efficient mechanisms for maintaining and spreading information. And then we have other features too, like you really want to make sure there are some parts of religion that are really incomprehensible.
Dennett: Because then people have to fall back on rote memorization. The very idea of the Eucharist is a lovely example: The idea that the bread is symbolic of the body of Christ, that the wine is symbolic of the blood of Christ, that's just not exciting enough. The idea needs to be made strictly incomprehensible: The bread is Christ's body and the wine is his blood. Only then will it hold your attention. Then it will win in competition against more boring ideas simply because you can't quite get your head around it. It's sort of like when you have a sore tooth and you can't keep your tongue off it. Every good Muslim is supposed to pray five times a day no matter what.
SPIEGEL: You see that too as an evolutionary strategy to keep the religion alive?
Dennett: It's very possible. The Israeli evolutionary biologist Amotz Zahavi argues that behaviors which are costly -- which are hard to imitate -- are those that can best be handed down because non-costly signals can and will be faked. This principle of costly behaviors is well established in biology and it is present in religion. It is important to make sacrifices. The costliness is a feature you tamper with at your peril. If the imams got together and decided to remove that feature they would be damaging one of the most powerful adaptations of Islam.
SPIEGEL: By using this type of argumentation, can you predict which religions will win out in the end?
Dennett: My colleagues Rodney Stark and Roger Finke have researched why some religions spread quickly and others don't. They're adapting supply side economics to this and saying that there's a sort of unlimited market for what religions can give but only if they're costly. So they have an explanation for why the very bland and liberal Protestant religions are losing members and why the most extreme, intense religions are gaining members.
SPIEGEL: Do you have an explanation for why the belief in Intelligent Design is nowhere so widespread as in the United States?
Dennett: No, unfortunately I don't. But I can say, the alliance between fundamentalists or evangelical religion and right wing politics is a very troubling phenomenon and this is certainly one of the most potent reasons for it. What's really scary is that a lot of them seem to think that the second coming is around the corner -- the idea that we're going to have Armageddon anyway so it doesn't make much difference. I find that to be socially irresponsible on the highest order. It's scary.
SPIEGEL: Professor Dennett, thank you very much for this interview.
Interview conducted by Jörg Blech and Johann Grolle
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