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Book Notes: “Darwin's Dangerous Idea”

Daniel Dennett passed away recently. Dennett was a philosopher who wrote about evolution, consciousness and intuition pumps.

"Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life" (1995) is his seminal work and one of my favorite books. In this book, Dennett explores the far-reaching implications of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, arguing that it is not only a scientific theory but also a powerful philosophical idea that can shed light on the nature of life, mind, and purpose.


Dennett's ideas have had a profound influence on my understanding of evolution and its implications, helping me appreciate the elegance and power of Darwin's theory and its ability to explain the complexity and diversity of life without recourse to supernatural explanations.

Below are some quotes and my notes from this book.

  1. Dennett regards Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection as possibly the single best idea anybody had ever had, ahead of Newton and Einstein.
If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I'd give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. But it is not just a wonderful scientific idea. It is a dangerous idea. My admiration for Darwin's magnificent idea is unbounded...
  1. What sparked wonder and curiosity in Darwin was the complexity of creatures and the millions of species out there.
Two great sources of wonder emerged from Darwin's work:

First, there were all the discoveries about the adaptations of organisms…"All these various machines, and even their most minute parts, are adjusted to each other, with an accuracy, which ravishes into admiration, all men who have ever contemplated them."

Second, there was the prolific diversity of living things – literally millions of different kinds of plants and animals. Why were there so many?
  1. Today, Darwin's theory is incontrovertible in that it is the only theory that can explain how life came about, how creatures got so complex and why there is so much diversity all around us.
Now the challenge to imagination was reversed: given all the tell-tale signs of the historical process that Darwin uncovered – all the brush marks of the artist, you might say – could anyone imagine how any process other than natural selection could have produced all these effects?
  1. Dennett's unique contribution is in emphasizing the algorithmic nature of evolution; he emphasizes that the goal of evolution is not to produce us humans.
Evolution can be an algorithm, and evolution can have produced us by an algorithmic process, without it being true that evolution is an algorithm for producing us.
  1. We humans just happen to be the (current) winners of a billion-year coin-tossing tournament. If life on this planet were to start all over again, there will almost certainly be no humans, or humans as top dogs.
If we were to "wind the tape of life back" and play it again and again, the likelihood is infinitesimal of us being the product on any other run through the evolutionary mill.
  1. Evolution is a mindless algorithm that does not have any plan and cannot look ahead, much like the process of arithmetic division, which is one step at a time. It has no intention or purpose.
Here, then, is Darwin's dangerous idea: the algorithmic level is the level that best accounts for the speed of the antelope, the wing of the Eagle, the shape of the orchid, the diversity of species, and all the other occasions for wonder in the world of nature. It is hard to believe that something as mindless and mechanical as an algorithm could produce such wonderful things. No matter how impressive the products of an algorithm, the underlying process always consists of nothing, but a set of individually mindless steps succeeding each other without the help of any intelligent supervision; they are "automatic".
  1. Dennett quips that since Darwin lived in 1800s England, it must have been natural for him to imagine evolution as a "value-added process", much like capitalism!
Had Darwin not had the benefit of being born into a mercantile world that already contained it's Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus, he would not have been in a position to find ready-made pieces he could put together into a new, value-added product.
  1. Many people are convinced that the complicated life on our planet must have been created by an "intelligent designer", because the theory of incremental improvements appears too trivial to create the wonderful results around us. Dennett counters this with his unique concept of cranes lifting other cranes to move them – an analogy for the gradual, stepwise process of evolution.
Anyone who is, like me, a lifelong onlooker at construction sites will have noticed with some satisfaction that it sometimes takes a small crane to set up a big crane. Cascading cranes is a tactic that seldom if ever gets used in real-world construction projects, but in principle, there is no limit to the number of cranes that could be organized in series to accomplish some mighty end.
Cranes lifting other cranes. Precisely how evolution works without needing an intelligent designer.
Now imagine all the "lifting" that has to get done in design space to create the magnificent organisms and artifacts we encounter in our world. Vast distances must have been traversed since the dawn of life with the earliest, simplest, self replicating entities, spreading outward (diversity) and upward (excellence). Darwin has offered us an account of the crudest, most rudimentary, stupidest, imaginable, lifting process – the wedge of natural selection, by taking tiny – the tiniest possible – steps, this process can gradually, over aeons, traverse these huge distances. At no point would anything miraculous be needed.
  1. Sex, with its consequent mixture of genes of the parents, is one of the cranes of evolution. In the absence of sex, asexual reproduction did not have the power to create variety and mutation.
It is generally agreed among evolutionary theorists that sex is a crane.
  1. Dennett suggests that the algorithmic nature of Darwin's theory allows it to be applied to a wide range of phenomena beyond biology, making it an unifying explanatory framework.
Darwin's dangerous idea is reductionism incarnate, promising to unite and explain just about everything in one magnificent vision. It's being the idea of an algorithmic process, makes it all the more powerful, since the substrate neutrality it thereby possesses permits us to consider its application to just about anything.
  1. Dennett even compares the apparent simplicity of Darwin's theory to the simple "buy low, sell high" algorithm for creating wealth, without requiring any complicated strategies. The algorithm is simple, but it is not easy.
Compare it to the following stock-market principle. Buy Low, Sell High. This is guaranteed to make you wealthy. You cannot fail to get rich if you follow this advice. Why doesn't it work? It does work—for everybody who is fortunate enough to act according to it, but, alas, there is no way of determining that the conditions are met until it is too late to act on them.
  1. Language (and memes) have accelerated our evolution. What evolution would take a million years to do is today being accomplished in a single lifetime.
This species specific process of enhancement has become so swift and powerful that a single generation of its design improvements can now dwarf the R&D efforts of millions of years of evolution by natural selection.… Our brains are in fact joining together into a single cognitive system that dwarfs all others. They are joined by an innovation that has invaded ours and no others: Language.

Conclusion and implications for investors

While "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" primarily focuses on the implications of evolution for our understanding of life, mind, and purpose, its insights can also be applied to the world of investing.

Evolution teaches us the power of incremental improvements over time, encouraging investors to focus on steady progress rather than chasing quick wins. It also emphasizes the primacy of survival for all living creatures. In the context of investing, this means prioritizing the preservation of capital over the pursuit of large gains. Just as organisms that take excessive risks are less likely to survive and reproduce, investors who expose themselves to outsized risks are more likely to suffer significant losses or even "blow up" their portfolios. By focusing on survival first and growth second, investors can increase their chances of long-term success and avoid the pitfalls of reckless speculation.

Investing Lessons from Evolutionary Biology
Investing has much more in common to evolution than you would expect