PULLMAN — Speaking to an overflow crowd in Todd Auditorium Thursday evening, philosopher Daniel C. Dennett discussed his take on “human exceptionalism” in the 47th annual Potter Memorial Lecture – given this year in conjunction with the Philip C. Holland Lecture.
In a presentation entitled From Animal to Person – How Cultural Evolution Builds Human Minds, Dennett offered the idea that humans are uniquely endowed to rise above the programming of “selfish genes” through the transfer of “memes” – language and cultural information – which are “downloaded and digitized” by our offspring.
Dennett – Austin B. Fletcher professor of philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University – is widely known for his work in cognitive science – i.e. the interdisciplinary study of mind and intelligence. Bridging the fields of philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, anthropology, computer science and biology, Dennett led the audience through an audacious intellectual excursion beginning billions of years ago with the first prokaryote life form.
He presented the theory that, at some point in time, one of these simple prokaryote cells invaded another cell resulting in a symbiotic relationship that benefitted both cells – and created a “better” eukaryotic or multicellular organism.
As he went on to discuss evolution and family trees, Dennett quoted David Brooks of the New York Times as saying, “We are driven by our desire to perpetuate ourselves and our species.” “This is a mistake,” said Dennett. “We aren’t driven primarily like this – it’s not just about the genes.”
Dennett believes there is a second “information highway” at work in humans which allows the transfer of information from parents – and culture as a whole – to offspring. He referenced author Richard Dawkins who called these bits of information memes – or “replicating elements of culture.”
Similar to a virus, Dennett says memes can evolve. “We are euprimates – apes with infected brains,” he laughed. “Our brains are infested with ideas that travel from person to person. Those ideas that are shepherded and championed the most survive.”
He used the diversity of language as an example calling words “memes that can be pronounced.” “Words have histories and evolve. No one designed them and they are not alive,” he said. “They are a type of technology that “remakes the brain – it’s the stuff we ‘download’.”
Dennett mentioned tonal music, maps, the decimal number system and perhaps money as examples of other memes that have evolved.
For accurate replication of a meme, Dennett says “digitization” of the brain is of key importance. He calls this the human predilection to slavishly copy and repeat words or ideas we don’t fully understand at the time.
“Bootstrapping” is another way that humans differ from animals according to Dennett. He used the term to explain how people take an original idea or product and continue to remodel and improve it over time.
In the end, Dennett says the ultimate difference is that “humans have ideas that they will die for.” “This is a stunning difference between us and other species. We are able to devote our lives to spread an idea. We are the only species with a higher purpose that we can endorse,” he said.
Dennett is the author of Breaking the Spell (2006), Freedom Evolves (2003), Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995) and many other books.