Dennett’s FBtBaB: Chapter Thirteen

I continue my series of short comments on Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back. These comments are mainly written for an online forum, in which undergraduate students of Professor Dennett post. Each time I raise a point about one chapter. This time I comment on chapter thirteen.

Cultural Evolution– Cultural Progress?

Chapter 13 treats the evolution of culture. A picture emerges that shows cultural development residing between two extremes, on the one side strictly Darwinian memetic evolution, on the other side intelligent design by individual geniuses.

My question is whether there is place for a notion of cultural progress here. I take for granted that we should conceive of Darwinian evolution as a non-progressive development. There is no progress in the evolution from dinosaurs to birds; adaptation to a changing environment, perhaps, but no progress. The same should be true for strictly Darwinian memetic evolution.

What about the other extreme, intelligent design by individual geniuses? This side is more promising, but it is very unclear what notion of cultural progress it can offer us. Whatever normative aspect there is to “progress” would need to be already packed into the notion of “intelligent design”. The geniuses would appear as making contributions to the progress of cultures, but it does not become clear how we would have to understand the progress itself. The purely individualistic genius approach does not provide much help on its own.

Maybe we should just give up on the notion of cultural progress and associated notions of cultural improvement. This move is problematic, however, because some such notion appears to be employed in chapter 13. Consider the discussion on page 328 where Professor Dennett employs a distinction between quantity and quality, roughly between how much a cultural product spreads and how good it is independently of the spreading potential. But how are we supposed to find out how qualitatively good a product is? If we knew what “quality” means here, we might be able to answer the question about cultural progress. Or the other way round, if we do not allow a notion of cultural progress, we might find it hard to give a convincing analysis of what “quality” means here.

Let me end with a suggestion: Perhaps we have to add more to the picture than the continuum between memetic evolution and individual geniuses engaging in intelligent to account for cultural progress – or give up on it altogether.