A Trillion Mindless Robots Dancing

Review: Daniel C. Dennett, 'From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds'

dancing robots

Getty Images


This very silly book begins with a confession. When Daniel Dennett was a graduate student at Oxford in the early '60s—that benighted era of hayseed conceptualists and pettifogging mystics when, as he puts it, "philosophers weren't expected to know about science"—his chief interest was not Plato or Kant or even dear old Freddie Ayer, but computers. For Dennett, a professor of philosophy at Tufts University and the author of a shelf of books with neologism-laden titles like Brainstorms, The Intentional Stance, and Intuition Pumps, this youthful fascination with technology took the place of that poetic rapture that Heidegger recognized as the starting point of all philosophy. To this day, he remains grateful to "the sterling cadre of pioneering researchers" who were "more forgiving of my naïve misunderstandings than they would have been had I been one of their colleagues or graduate students." Some of us wish they had been less accommodating.

From Bacteria to Bach and Back is, as its title suggests, a rather grandiose and totalizing book that purports to explain, among other things, the origin and function of human consciousness—what Dennett has called "a trillion mindless robots dancing"—on materialist grounds. His purpose is, or is meant to be, polemical. He wants not only to explicate his own views about the mind but to cajole and, if necessary, to shock his opponents into accepting them and abandoning their "precious intuitions" about things like the reality of subjective experience or the existence of things like love, friendship, and the smell of lavender. In this, Bacteria does not differ substantially from most of his other books. What sets this one apart is the sense you get from Dennett's summary tone of the author rolling up his sleeves, drawing in his breath, and preparing to fight one last battle. There is also his stated desire to repay his many teachers and colleagues from Oxford to the present for all the things he has learned as an "amateur, who gets invited to give lectures and participate in workshops and visit labs all over the world."

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin / Getty Images

For all his avowed interest in keeping up to speed, Dennett's latest book is grounded in the literary past. Its most obvious ancestors are Gulliver's Travels, the Alice novels, Finnegans Wake, and the anagogic volumes of Valentinus and Marcion. These pages are filled with strange beings and places, curious personages, mythical creatures, fanciful asides, bizarre coinages, airy speculations, lapidary sayings, spells, formulae, taboos, curses. There are "charts" and "illustrations" that look like cabbalistic tables and hexagrams from the Lesser Key of Solomon: three-dimensional graphs charting Protestantism against (I use that word in the loosest, merely descriptive sense) rabbits, trust, words, and Catholicism. Capital letters and quasi-specialist vocabulary abound: "qualia," "meta-competences," "neuronal spike trains," "symbionts," "mutualist," the "Frankenstein-Spakesherae [sic] thought experiment," and "mysterians." Here be dragons—and "memes."

Memes are to Dennett what evolution was to his hero Darwin. They are the cherished discovery of a scientific forebear, in this case Richard Dawkins. They are also a fantasy to which no responsible person would grant conceptual, to say nothing of corporeal, existence. I say this at the risk of being forced to admit that, real or no, I am not entirely sure what memes are supposed to be. Nor is Dennett, who entertains the idea that memes may be "like" genes or viruses or other kinds of infections or routines or words or "commensals" or parasites. They are, or might be, he says, "a kind of way of behaving (roughly) that can be copied, transmitted, remembered, taught, shunned, denounced, brandished, ridiculed, parodied, censored, hallowed." What is the parenthetical "roughly" supposed to be accomplishing there? Does it mean that memes have a rough way of behaving, like my older daughter, who has a tendency to stick her foot inadvertently in her sister's face? Or does he want to suggest that memes are only in a rough sense the sorts of things to which the above list of random predicates might be attached?

Britney Spears

Britney Spears / Getty Images

On the most generous reading, memes are, like genes, autonomous, self-replicating, monomaniacal agents, albeit of cultural rather than biological transmission. Exactly what qualifies as a meme is not so much an open question as it is a closed one with an unlimited number of potential answers. The meme is a genus with a trillion species, but it is also, simultaneously, a kingdom, a phylum, a class, an order, and a family. Anything can be a meme, from the loftiest conclusions of philosophers to the tritest Facebook post, from Beethoven's Eroica to Britney Spears's "Toxic": an idea, a body of fact, an enthusiasm, a predilection, a set of assumptions, a common object of approbation or derision or hysteria. The Roman Catholic Church and democracy are memes; so are the fugue, watercolor painting, video games, IRA terrorism, and hardcore pornography.

For Dennett as for Dawkins, it is important to point out that memes are not a mere conceptual tool or metaphor, constituent elements of what some philosophers would call "social ontology." They are real, like lungs or neurons. The fact that no one has ever touched a meme in se—the pesky little buggers forcing us to get all hot and bothered about Oprah or Osama or Obama, as opposed to what one might think of, in an obliging mood, as objects of "memefication"—or even examined one under a microscope, leaves him undaunted. Those of us who count ourselves meme-skeptics are in the position of the cynical child on the playground whose fellows insist to him that he could see Santa Claus if he really wanted to. It's hard to figure out why for a scientist such resistance should be difficult to make sense of.

The Beatles

The Beatles / Getty Images

Ditto for a philosopher. One cannot escape the feeling that a little less time fiddling around in labs and a little more spent brushing up on the difference between, among other things, ontology, epistemology, and phenomenology, all of which seem to collapse for Dennett into a kind of a-conceptual blur whenever the subject of memes comes up, would do him a world of good. It is one thing to hear "Let It Be" on the radio for the thousandth time or look at a list of bestselling albums and observe that The Beatles are popular, and another to think of their popularity as a kind of social fact. It is another still to think about the ways in which their popularity was achieved and conclude that this was the result of some inevitable preternatural phenomenon. Stephen King, cigarettes, and Casablanca are beloved because people like reading about killer dogs, smoking, and seeing Ingrid Bergman's face bathed in light, not because an untold number of so-far invisible and indeed unobservable brain-leeches are addicted to making copies of themselves.

This seemingly technology-abetted confusion about the nature of reality manifests in all sorts of ways. The most obvious is Dennett's intermittent suggestion that there exist numerous meaningful insights into what some of us, in our quaint manner, insist on referring to as human nature to be gleaned from computers, which, he tells us over and over again, are doing exactly what our minds do, no more, no less. At some point he seems to have forgotten how analogies work. Our minds are not like computers; computers are not even like our minds. Computers are machines, like automobiles or cotton gins. When Alan Turing announced to his colleagues that adding machines do not need to know what arithmetic is in order to perform it, he was making an observation about high-powered appliances, not human beings. No amount of equivocation, obfuscation, or conceptual untidiness—deliberate or otherwise—can change the fact that if some malign foreign agent were to wipe out the power grid of the entire continental United States tomorrow, millions of computers would cease to function, experiments in artificial intelligence at major research universities across the country would cease, and Google's mission to catalogue all our tastes, preferences, crotchets, and peccadillos would be set back. Yet my mind and Dennett's would continue plugging away at their everyday non-mechanical business, forming impressions about what we were seeing and doing and reading and eating and drinking. Anyone unable to make this crucial, and absurdly obvious, distinction between us and the things we have invented is guilty not of a mere failure of imagination or understanding, but of voluntary membership in an intellectually enfeebling cult.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare / Getty Images

Dennett is many things, but a fluid and graceful writer of English prose is not one of them. You can tell that he realizes this because very often you catch him hacking away at clarity, introducing italic type and alliteration ("potent polarization") and repetition ("Informational artifacts abound—telephones, books, maps, recipes—and information theory itself began as an artifact for studying important features of those artifacts") only to end no nearer lucidity than phrases like "all the brilliance and comprehension in the world arises ultimately out of uncomprehending competences compounded over time into ever more competent—and hence comprehending—systems." Even less forgivable are silly lapses, like Dennett's indicating the possessive form of Descartes not by placing an apostrophe after his name but by the unpronounceable "Descartes's" or his suggestion that Stephen Greenblatt, his fellow Guggenheim award winner and a stable mate at Norton, is the only person in recent years to have written a popular book about Shakespeare. This is, among other things, a helpful indicator that this book is the product of a coterie of sorts. From the acknowledgements onward we are subjected to name-dropping of the "In a typically lucid commentary on my Harvard Mind-Brain-Behavior Lectures of 2009, Steven Pinker expanded his critique of memes" variety, complete with YouTube URLs. Dennett also has a tendency to trot out certain big names—Picasso, "Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1760)," and so on—prosaically, sans anything that might hint at genuine love of or appreciation for the masters' work. I actually laughed aloud when something called "viral mutation" was dredged up in order to explain the fact that Dennett once, by his own admission, took it upon himself to quote E.M. Forster without having read him.

From Bacteria to Bach and Back is poorly organized. It proceeds along lines that are neither chronological nor, except in the sense that different chapters have different names, thematic, but seemingly at random for nearly 500 pages, including copious bibliography. Dennett and his research assistants have an annoying habit of employing, in addition to footnotes and endnotes, formal in-text citations in a book seemingly meant for general readers. What is the point of having notes at the back if we are going to be told in the middle of a sentence that Dennett's source for what Cole Porter said about Irving Berlin is "(Wyatt and Johnson 2004, p.117)"? This unsightly practice is, oddly, not followed to the letter. Even the unremittingly tedious Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association would have advised against informing the reader that a quote from a scientist called Francis Arnold can be found in "(Arnold 2013)." Elsewhere APA style gives way in a citation for "Charles Darwin," but poor old Monroe Beardsley, the most important philosopher of aesthetics in the whole of the analytic tradition, is reduced to being indicated by his first initial, as if he were a marginal figure.

Scarlett Johansson / Getty Images

The biggest problem with Dennett's book is not this kind of surface-level sloppiness but something far more basic: the nihilistic circularity of virtually all his reasoning. Minds have evolved randomly and the products of their dim calculations are so many whispers in the atomic dark! Everything in human culture is an inherently worthless meme, including the theory that everything in human culture is an inherently worthless meme! It never occurs to him to move beyond the brute fact of our consciousness of being and ask about being itself. Why there is anything—bacteria, fungi, cephalopods, spiders, kingfishers, apes, elephants, the faculty of Princeton University, Eric Trump, Scarlett Johansson, trees, roses, skyscrapers, Cadillacs, the novels of Smollett and Barbara Pym, Frankie Lymon's gold records, even, yes, millions, if not trillions, of robots—instead of nothing is, or used to be, an important question for philosophers. Perhaps if the young Dennett had stepped out of the Oxford computer lab more often and into Blackwell's, he might have come across an old lovingly dog-eared set of Jowett's Plato or one of those wonderfully attractive old Penguin editions of Aristotle, who could have taught him about definitions and categories. Instead we are left with the fruits of a half century's investigation into one man's not very interesting mental life, with brain-robots, abundant italics, and generous quotations from Daniel Wegner and "his groundbreaking book The Illusion of Conscious Will (2002)."

Matthew Walther   Email Matthew | Full Bio | RSS
Matthew Walther is associate editor of the Washington Free Beacon. He was previously assistant editor of the American Spectator. His work has also appeared in the Spectator of London, First Things, the Weekly Standard, National Review, the Daily Beast, and other publications. He lives with his wife, Lydia, in Alexandria, Virginia. His Twitter handle is @matthewwalther.