There is much more to be explored in this evolution of cultural evolution and its role in creating our minds, but first we should look more closely at how it got started. Like the origin of life, this is an unsolved problem, and a very difficult one. Our minds are in some regards as different from other minds as living things are from nonliving things, and finding even one defensible path from our common ancestor with the chimpanzees is a challenging task. There is no shortage of competing hypotheses, and we will consider the best (by my lights). Which came first: language or cooperation or tool making or fire tending or stone throwing or confrontational scavenging or trade or . . .? We shouldn’t be surprised if there proves to be no single “magic bullet” answer, but rather a coevolutionary process with lots of contributing factors feeding on each other. The fact remains that we are the only species so far that has developed explosively cumulative culture—yet another replication bomb—and any speculative story that explains why (both how come and what for) we have culture must also explain why we alone have culture. Culture has obviously been a Good Trick for us, but eyesight and flight are also obvious Good Tricks, and they have each evolved several times in different species. What barriers have stood in the way of other evolutionary lineages developing the same Good Trick?--Daniel C. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back; The Evolution of Minds, 149.
The evolutionary origin of language is an unsolved, but not insoluble, problem, and both experimental and theoretical work has made progress in formulating testable hypotheses about gradual, incremental evolutionary processes, both cultural and genetic, that could transform the more primitive talents of our ancestors into the verbal dexterity and prolixity of modern language users. The arrival of language then set the stage for yet another great moment in evolutionary history: the origin of comprehension.
In the next chapter we will see how, as linguistic competence grew, it not only accelerated cultural evolution; it permitted the process itself—the process of cultural evolution—to evolve into something less Darwinian, less bottom-up, paving the way for top-down comprehension, one of the most recent fruits on the Tree of Life, and the inauguration of the age of intelligent design. The creativity of individual human beings can be seen to echo, at high speed and in concentrated forms, the R&D processes that created it.--Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back; The Evolution of Minds, 281.
Despite Dennet's training in philosophy (at Oxford, no less, under Ryle), his appointment in a well-regarded philosophy department, and his continued self-identification as a philosopher ("Philosophers, like me" (407)), I suspect that many professional philosophers find Dennett's From Bacteria to Bach and Back, if they read it all with any care, barely philosophy. Dennett offers few structured arguments (with carefully numbered premises), no clear dilemmas/trillemas (etc.) nor the apparent paradoxes that are the staple of our profession nor does he deploy the conceptual distinctions that populate, say, recent philosophy of mind. With a few notable exceptions (Peter Godfrey Smith, Ruth Millikan, Dan Sperber, Bryce Huebner, Jody Azzouni, etc.) Dennett rarely mentions other living philosophers whose work he draws upon.
In some respects Dennett is a legacy philosopher, our intellectual celebrity in the world of public intellectuals, admired or reviled (due to his association with New Atheism). One can easily imagine that Dennett's latest work shares the fate of Rorty's late work: mainstream professional philosophers recognizing the name, and paying respectful lip-service to his importance while ceding engagement with his ideas to other disciplines and TED audiences. This would be a mistake. Dennett's late work is brimming with new ideas (developed in more scholarly publications for over a decade) and insightful changes of heart. (Some other time I offer examples; but recall here.) Along the way, Dennett has become an exemplar for an entirely different way of doing philosophy. I call this (recall here and here): synthetic philosophy.
Synthetic philosophy is the enterprise of bringing together insights, knowledge, and arguments from the special sciences with the aim to offer a theoretically (reasonably) unified, coherent account of complex systems and connect these to a wider culture or other philosophical projects (or both). It may, in turn, generate new research in the special sciences or a new science connected to the framework adopted in the synthetic philosophy. I am not going to define a complex system, but I operationalize it by suggesting it is, in turn, studied by multiple sciences.
Synthetic philosophy, which shares kinship with what was once known as 'natural philosophy,' is made possible by, and a response to, the intellectual division of labor within and among the scientific disciplines. It is, thus, a modern phenomenon of the last two centuries. I call it 'synthetic' in order to distinguish it from analytic philosophy.
In Dennett's case, Darwinisms provides the synthesizing glue. This is no coincidence because Darwin himself is the hard-to-classify (among the) last natural philosopher(s)/naturalists or (among) the first synthetic philosopher(s) (if Spencer had not jumped ahead of him). Darwin had brought together insights from a whole number of distinct sciences (geology, botany, paleontology, morphology, entomology, animal husbandry, climate science, etc.) and, in turn, self-consciously revolutionized them with his ideas and opening up new avenues for research. Dennett draws on some of Darwin's own examples or very cleverly recasts them. For example (of the latter), as I noted a few days ago (recall), Darwin deploys a trope from Mandeville and Hume in which the slowly evolved complexity of a ship stands for the unintended functionality of bottom up effectiveness of the division of labor; this example is recast by Dennett in an extended analysis of Leslie Groves top-down design of the Manhattan Project, which involved thousands of competent workers who had no comprehension of what they were contributing to.
A reader, familiar with my fondness for coining fancy new memes, may well suspect that I am at odds with Dennett's self-understanding. This would be no objection to my purposes -- we all have a right to use Dennett's writings for our own ends --, but as it happens while Dennett does not use the term 'synthetic philosopher,' his self-understanding (or the project's) fits the concept:
[One may object that:] genes can’t explain adaptations (structures, organs, instincts, etc.). That’s true; that’s why we need molecular biology, physiology, embryology, ethology, island biogeography, and all the other specializations of biology if we are going to explain how particular adaptations work and why they are adaptations. We also need these other fields to explain how parasites exploit their hosts, how spider webs are cost-effective food traps, how beavers build their dams, why whales vocalize, and all the rest. Similarly, [in memetics] we need psychology, anthropology, economics, political science, history, philosophy, and literary theory to explain how and why cultural features (good and bad) work the way they do.....Pre-Darwinian natural history at its best was well-developed, systematic science, with hypotheses to test and explanations galore, but Darwin enriched it with a host of questions that put all its generalizations in a new light. My overarching claim in this book is that the evolutionary perspective in general and the memetic perspective with regard to culture transform many of the apparently eternal puzzles of life, that is, meaning and consciousness, in ways inaccessible to those who never look beyond the manifest image that they grew up with and the disciplines they are trained in.-- From Bacteria to Bach and Back, 242-3 [additions in square brackets added by Schliesser].
That is to say, Dennett brings Darwinian theory to bear on and connects existing work in offering empirically informed, but still speculative accounts of the origins of mind, language, and life (most of which already deeply influenced by Darwinism) and to open up a new meta-science of culture, memetics, that can draw upon and re-orient existing cultural studies and human/social sciences. The focus on (hard to know) origins is not just the philosopher's sly tactic to avoid empirical refutation, but it is the application of Darwin's own claim that "all true classification is genealogical; that community of descent is the hidden bond which naturalists have been unconsciously seeking," (Chapter 13, The Origin of Species.)
As Dennett himself admits (see the quoted passages at top of this post), his book is a list of as-of-yet unsolved problems. There is an irony lurking here; in the philosophy of mind, Dennett is known for being quite critical of the mysterians (373; Searle, Chomsky, etc.) and the folk who embrace variants of the explanatory gap (p. 20; e.g., Levine) or hard problem (p. 318, Chalmers, etc.). In a way, his main criticism is not that they give up too early or too easily (although surely he believes that as well as that they have underappreciated how much he has done toward explaining consciousness), but rather that the difficulty of the problem of consciousness is, in fact, under-appreciated because it involves not the characterization and location of some dividing line, but rather many multi-dimensional problems about how our embodied and (linguistically and materially) en-cultured competences -- many, but not all, without comprehension hang together in various not-so-seem-less (even if the gaps are often obscure to the first person) ways. And despite the famous title of Dennett 1991, at best Dennett has sketched the contours of a possible explanation (in part by telling a plausible origin story and by relating our kinds to other kinds of minds).
How, then, does one judge the merits of synthetic philosophy? Ye shall know them by their fruits, that is, not just by how synthetic philosophies instantiate various theoretical virtues, but primarily by the new cognitive tools they supply for the special sciences and philosophical reflection, including (ahh) the development of useful new myths.*