Daniel C. Dennett – “From Bacteria to Bach and Back”

   “Even the simplest bacterial cells have a sort of nervous system composed of chemical networks of exquisite efficiency and elegance. But how could just the right combination of membranes and do-loops ever arise in the prebiotic world? “Not in a million years!” some say. Fair enough, but then how about once in a hundred million years? It only has to happen once to ignite the fuse of reproduction”

“The termite castle and Gaudí’s La Sagrada Familia are very similar in shape but utterly different in genesis and construction. There are reasons for the structures and shapes of the termite castle, but they are not represented by any of the termites who constructed it. There is no Architect Termite who planned the structure, nor do any individual termites have the slightest clue about why they build the way they do. This is competence without comprehension, about which more later. There are also reasons for the structures and shapes of Gaudí’s masterpiece, but they are (in the main) Gaudí’s reasons. Gaudí had reasons for the shapes he ordered created; there are reasons for the shapes created by the termites, but the termites didn’t have those reasons. There are reasons why trees spread their branches, but they are not in any strong sense the trees’ reasons. Sponges do things for reasons, bacteria do things for reasons; even viruses do things for reasons. But they don’t have the reasons; they don’t need to have the reasons”.

“Endosymbiosis is a crane; it lifted simple single cells into a realm of much complexity, where multicellular life could take off. Sex is a crane; it permitted gene pools to be stirred up, and thus much more effectively sampled by the blind trial-and-error processes of natural selection. Language and culture are cranes, evolved novelties that opened up vast spaces of possibility to be explored by ever more intelligent (but not miraculously intelligent) designers. Without the addition of language and culture to the arsenal of R&D tools available to evolution, there wouldn’t be glow-in-the-dark tobacco plants with firefly genes in them”.

“Both Darwin and Turing claim to have discovered something truly unsettling to a human mind—competence without comprehension. Beverley expressed his outrage with gusto: the very idea of creative skill without intelligence!”.

   “Even bacteria are good at staying alive, making the right moves, and keeping track of the things that matter most to them; and trees and mushrooms are equally clever, or, more precisely, cleverly designed to make the right moves at the right time. They all have elevator-type “minds,” not elevated minds like ours.16 They don’t need minds like ours. And their elevator-minds are—must be—the products of an R&D process of trial and error that gradually structured their internal machinery to move from state to state in a way highly likely—not guaranteed—to serve their limited but vital interests”.

“we should take the same line with bacteria, and with trees and mushrooms. They exhibit impressive competence at staying-alive-in-their-limited-niches, thanks to the well-designed machinery they carry with them, thanks to their genes. That machinery was designed by the R&D process of natural selection, however, so there is nothing anywhere at any time in that R&D history that represents the rationales of either the larger functions of whole systems or component functions of their parts the way comments and labels represent these functions for human designers”.

“linguists today are still thrashing around trying to write a satisfactory version of the “rule book” for speaking English, while every ten-year-old native English speaker has somehow installed and debugged a pretty good version of the executable object code for the control task of speaking and understanding the language”.

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