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Daniel Dennett’s “Strange Inversion of Reasoning”

Daniel Dennett is one of the most influential philosophers alive today. He is a professor of philosophy at Tuft University and he has received an honorary doctorate from Radboud University Nijmegen to mark the university’s 95th anniversary. He was awarded this title for his outstanding work on mind and cognition, spanning several decades and cutting across disciplines.

But Dennett’s fame extends far beyond academia. He draws big crowds thanks to his ability to make inaccessible philosophy accessible to a broad audience. His last public lecture in Nijmegen managed to fill all 1450 seats in the main concert hall of de Vereeniging. Right from the start of this talk, he captivated his audience by promising that he would solve one of the biggest puzzles in science.

The puzzle: getting from bacteria to Bach

The puzzle is this: how did geniuses like Bach emerge from mindless creatures like bacteria? In other words, how did mind evolve from mindless matter?

According to Dennett, the solution involves Darwin’s theory of evolution. More specifically, it involves what one of Darwin’s critics called “Darwin’s strange inversion of reasoning”. Whereas some claim that only an intelligent designer could create other intelligent designers like Bach, Darwin claimed that a process devoid of intelligent design, like natural selection, can in fact produce intelligent designers.

Dennett right away admits that Darwin’s reasoning does sound strange. Contrary to Darwin’s critics though, he argues that Darwin is right. To show why, he asks us to consider the evolution of eukaryotes. Every creature we see with the naked eye is a eukaryote. That is to say: a multi-celled organism. Crucially, eukaryotes evolved from single-cells bacteria. The evolutionary biologist, Lynn Margulis, even discovered how. She found that single-celled organisms would sometimes collide. And on some occasions—instead of destroying each other—two single-celled organisms would collide and become one single multi-celled organism.

Dennett calls this symbiosis of single-celled creatures “a great case of technology transfer”. That is because each cell evolved to have its own unique tool kit. Some cells can detect light. Others cells can metabolise sugar. Some cells can even destroy viruses. By working together, these cells make themselves better equipped to survive the brutal struggle for survival that is natural selection. And this in turn, according to Dennett, teaches us an important lesson about evolution—namely, that “processes that look dumb, might actually be very smart.”

Another puzzle: cathedrals vs. termite castles

Dennett went on to argue that this lesson holds an important clue to how we got from bacteria to Bach. To see why, Dennett first asks us to consider another puzzle. It concerns an unlikely pair of look-a-likes: termite mounds and La Sagrada Familia. Their designs are uncannily similar, while the minds that created them are significantly different. The castle-building termites are, in Dennett’s words, “pretty dumb and clueless”, mindless even. By contrast, La Sagrada Familia was designed by Antoni Gaudí—an intelligent designer. He conceived and directed the construction of this iconic Spanish cathedral, using only his brain. To Dennett, this is mind-boggling.  That is because human brains, including Gaudí’s, “are more like termite colonies than you might expect”. If you zoom in on individual neurons in a brain, they are even more clueless than individual termites. “So what is going on here?” he asks. What makes human brains different from a swarming heap of antropods? Dennett provides a short and a long answer.

Here’s the short answer: human brains are well-equipped with thinking tools, whereas termite colonies are not. As Dennett poignantly remarks “you can’t do much carpentry with your bare hands and you can’t do much thinking with your bare brain”. On this analogy, termite colonies are bare brains.

To be clear, thinking tools are things like words, numbers, habits, and algorithms. They help us to execute cognitive tasks such as navigating the world, hunting for food, and building a shelter. But this, Dennett notes, poses another question: how did we get these tools?

Memes, not genes

This brings us to Dennett’s longer answer: our brains acquired thinking tools thanks to cultural evolution. Unlike biological evolution, cultural evolution designs tools which we inherent through social learning—not through genes. Instead, thinking tools get transmitted by memes. The term meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). It refers to any kind of entity that can carry information and replicate itself culturally, be it a string of words or a picture of a grumpy-looking cat.

Crucially, according to Dennett, to understand how the mind evolved from mindless matter, we need to understand that the evolution of the human mind is a lot like the evolution of eukaryotes. In the same way that the symbiosis between single-celled bacteria produced complex life forms, the symbiosis between our brains and thinking tools led to human minds. Or as Dennett puts it “we are apes with infected brains”—infected by thinking tools, that is.

Dennett then presents his own “strange inversion of reasoning”: you can be competent without any understanding. Individual neurons in a brain, or terminates in a mound, might not understand anything, but they might still create intelligent behaviour. This idea then gives us, what Dennett calls his startling conclusion: “mind (consciousness, understanding) is the effect, not the cause of evolution.” Puzzle solved.


In sum, during his public lecture Daniel Dennett tried to answer one of the toughest questions in science. Namely, how did mind evolve from mindless bacteria? His answer takes us on a tour from cellular biology, to Darwinian theory and thinking tools. The final stop of his tour is Dennett’s delightfully strange inversion of reasoning that competence does not require comprehension.

This report was written by Pepa Mellema, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.