An upcoming book by Dan Dennett

Lord is this man prolific! Like Steve Pinker (another man I admire), Dan just keeps cranking out the books, and they’re often very good ones. These two men seem to have books arrayed in their heads like planes coming in for a landing at O’Hare, all arrayed in a sequential order.

Dan’s latest book, which will be out on February 7 of next year, is From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds.   Dan never shies away from the hard problems, and, according to the publisher’s site (W. W. Norton), the subject is this:

One of America’s foremost philosophers offers a major new account of the origins of the conscious mind.

How did we come to have minds?

For centuries, this question has intrigued psychologists, physicists, poets, and philosophers, who have wondered how the human mind developed its unrivaled ability to create, imagine, and explain. Disciples of Darwin have long aspired to explain how consciousness, language, and culture could have appeared through natural selection, blazing promising trails that tend, however, to end in confusion and controversy. Even though our understanding of the inner workings of proteins, neurons, and DNA is deeper than ever before, the matter of how our minds came to be has largely remained a mystery.

That is now changing, says Daniel C. Dennett. In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, his most comprehensive exploration of evolutionary thinking yet, he builds on ideas from computer science and biology to show how a comprehending mind could in fact have arisen from a mindless process of natural selection. Part philosophical whodunit, part bold scientific conjecture, this landmark work enlarges themes that have sustained Dennett’s legendary career at the forefront of philosophical thought.

In his inimitable style—laced with wit and arresting thought experiments—Dennett explains that a crucial shift occurred when humans developed the ability to share memes, or ways of doing things not based in genetic instinct. Language, itself composed of memes, turbocharged this interplay. Competition among memes—a form of natural selection—produced thinking tools so well-designed that they gave us the power to design our own memes. The result, a mind that not only perceives and controls but can create and comprehend, was thus largely shaped by the process of cultural evolution.

Well, I’ve never been keen on memes, which in my view haven’t added anything to our understanding of anything, but never mind: Dan’s argument probably doesn’t rest on “memetics.” At any rate, I just got a prepublication copy of this book and will give a report when I finish it.



  1. Barry Lyons
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Dennett is a terrific writer, and “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” remains one of my all-time favorite books. I can’t wait for the new one!

    • Merilee
      Posted November 18, 2016 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Ditto on both points!

  2. rickflick
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Terrific. I’m looking forward to a good read.

  3. GBJames
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Looking forward to it!

  4. BobTerrace
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    I just pre-ordered the Kindle version.

  5. Stephen Barnard
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    The “meme” concept can certainly be overused, but I think it’s important. It sounds (from your summary) that Dennett is taking memes seriously — that he’s identifying the origin of primitive memes as the origin of culture, which soon transcends biological evolution, and vastly exceeds it in pace. Seems sensible to me, and not especially radical. I’ll read this book.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 18, 2016 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

      I find it nicely ironical that the concept of memes was invented by Richard Dawkins (in Selfish Gene) apparently as just a means to give a parallel illustration to the way genes spread. And – doubtless to his surprise – he had invented, in the ‘meme’, one of the most powerful memes of recent times.


  6. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Hooray for Dan!
    I was recently thinking about a passage from somewhere in the The God Delusion where Dawkins described how startling it must have been for H. erectus when the evolving mind began to use spoken language. Because then our smaller brained ancestors presumably began to hear a voice in their head, which is the same voice we all hear today in our minds, articulating what we are thinking.

    It must have been impossible to realize that this was not communication from a higher power.

      • nicky
        Posted November 18, 2016 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

        There is something seriously wrong with Jaynes’ timelines.

      • Carl
        Posted November 19, 2016 at 10:11 am | Permalink

        Blast from the past. Mark’s comment immediately brought Julian Jaynes to my mind too. I first read the book in 1980 or so and was fascinated by the theory. I haven’t seen any support or evidence in the intervening time though.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 18, 2016 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

      I would imagine, being able to use words as labels to define concepts, must have made an enormous boost to the development of intelligence.

      (Note that’s speculation, I’m not a psychologist)


  7. ToddP
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    Great news. Very much looking forward to this. Dan is an excellent writer and thinker.

    As a HUGE fan of Bach’s music, and the intellectual aspects of his composition methods, any further insights are eagerly welcomed.

  8. Kevin
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Terrific cover. Will buy hard copy + audiobook.

  9. Larry Smith
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    My first thought upon seeing this info is what a welcome counterpoint this should be to the recent Tom Wolfe effort on language.

  10. Posted November 18, 2016 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    Memes and themes. This may have been useful for Bach, who, had 20 children because (drum roll) his organ had no stops.

    • Merilee
      Posted November 18, 2016 at 7:45 pm | Permalink


    • Posted November 18, 2016 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

      Yet another Bach score.

  11. Dimitris Klaras
    Posted November 19, 2016 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    Looks interesting. I haven’t read yet any of his books but maybe I make a start with this one.

    • rickflick
      Posted November 19, 2016 at 6:45 am | Permalink

      We can’t wait for you to catch up, but if you hurry…


  12. somer
    Posted November 19, 2016 at 5:16 am | Permalink

    Im a bit sceptical of the memes concept. I prefer Steven Mithen on the development of mind as different areas of competence that expanded, became more complex then integrated by use of symbols. Also John Reader that because the savannah lifestyle required both largish social groups, a very varied diet and long range foraging and hunting during the day, the requirements of coordinating hunts and sharing food predisposed towards the development of language – which must depend on shorthand terms for things – symbols with agreed concrete meaning – but language is not consciousness in itself, or is just a part of consciousness. He and Robert Winston points out that consciousness critically involves the ability to both recognise the self in relation to others, to negotiate with others, and to be conscious of the evolution and decisions of that self through time. It involves the ability to plan into the future – which is not something that animals have much of at all.

    • somer
      Posted November 19, 2016 at 5:20 am | Permalink

      “He and Robert Winston” – that is Steve Mithen and Winston

      • somer
        Posted November 19, 2016 at 5:36 am | Permalink

        and integrated by symbols is integrated by cerebral cortex

  13. Posted November 19, 2016 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    You can see my take on memes, at least as presented in Sue Blackmore’s book The Meme Machine, in a review I wrote in Nature in 1999.

    • Posted November 19, 2016 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      Interesting review.

      “Why did Christianity take hold during the waning days of the Roman Empire?”

      I don’t know about the timing, but I think Christianity and Islam have exactly the viral properties (spread the word, kill the infidel) expected of a spreading, malignant meme.

    • Carl
      Posted November 19, 2016 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      From the review:

      Moreover, Blackmore’s scenario … and fails to explain the hardest problem of human consciousness: subjective sensation.

      Will the new Dennet book address this problem in an interesting way? I wouldn’t expect anything like a solution – “hardest problem” is apt.

      • Posted November 21, 2016 at 11:43 am | Permalink

        This is the subject of Dennett’s book from 25 years ago, _Consciousness Explained_ and a few other books and articles since.

  14. Diane G.
    Posted November 20, 2016 at 12:39 am | Permalink


  15. kelskye
    Posted November 20, 2016 at 1:12 am | Permalink

    Looking forward to reading this. However well he actually addresses the the challenges of an explanation of consciousness, his pieces are always thought-provoking and insightful.

  16. Vaal
    Posted November 20, 2016 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Oh to be as intellectually prolific as Dan is, at that age…

  17. Posted November 21, 2016 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Looks like he’s finally gotten to the “life’s goal” – somewhere he describes his entire career as an attempt to explain why there are minds or the like.

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