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Grappling With Darwin's Idea

Grappling With Darwin's IdeaMany people are unsettled by Darwin's theory of evolution. In PBS's new "Evolution" mini series, Tufts Daniel Dennett explains why.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [09.25.01] Published almost 150 years ago, Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection has had a long and controversial life. While his views of evolution are no longer considered "radical" -- as they once were -- many people continue to grapple with their impact on religion and human society. For its critically acclaimed miniseries "Evolution," PBS turned to Tufts' Daniel Dennett to explain why many people still consider Darwin's ideas "dangerous."

"It's a great idea but it's dangerous because it requires us to invert our usual scheme of purpose and meaning and replace a 'top-down' theory with a 'bottom-up' theory," Dennett said during one of the opening segments of the PBS series.

Under the theory, the meaning of life isn't dictated by a divine creator, but by laws of science and nature.

"Darwin's idea of natural selection makes people uncomfortable because it reverses the direction of tradition," Dennett said in an interview with PBS.

People become particularly unsettled when the theory is applied to humans.

"If Darwin is right, then we become just another effect," the Tufts philosophy professor told PBS. "I think many people are terribly afraid of being demoted by the Darwinian scheme from the role of authors and creators in their own right into being just places where things happen in the universe."

But Dennett says Darwin's ideas don't mean that humans aren't set apart from the world's other animals.

"I think that one can see from a Darwinian account how the addition of culture in our species turns us into a very special sort of animal -- an animal that can be a moral agent in a way that no other animal can be," he said.

So where does religion fit into Darwin's theory of natural selection?

According to Dennett -- who heads Tufts' Center for Cognitive Studies -- he believes there is still room for a "creator."

"After Darwin, God's role changes from being the designer of all creatures, great and small, to being the designer of the laws of nature, from which natural selection can unfold, to being just perhaps the chooser of the laws," Dennett said.

But Darwin's ideas -- which Dennett ranks above the work of Einstein and Newton -- may require humans to make one sacrifice.

"There's nobody to thank," he said. "The gratitude that we may feel on a beautiful day when everything is just seeming so wonderful, the desire to say 'thank you,' there's no appropriate recipient for our gratitude."

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