Dennett on Sunlight

Here’s my transcript of what I consider one of the more striking moments in the conversation with Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett moderated by Alex de Waal at the “Unlearning Violence” conference held at Tufts’ Fletcher School in February. (A video of the discussion in its entirety follows.) Daniel Dennett is speaking:

Something’s happened, which is absolutely unprecedented in the history of civilization, which is a major — I think a major change. And yes it’s the internet and electronic communication. But what it has done, it has rendered the epistemological atmosphere in which we live transparent in a way it never was before.

There’s a lovely book — speculative book by Andrew Parker, a zoologist in Oxford, who [in In The Blink Of An Eye: How Vision Sparked The Big Bang Of Evolution], argues, very plausibly, that the cause of the great Cambrian explosion, this huge outpouring of new life, that the trigger for that was the transparency, the sudden, relatively sudden growing transparency of the oceans and the air, making sunlight available and making vision possible for the first time. And it was the immediate evolution of eyes which changed everything, because now predator could see prey, prey could see predator, and if you didn’t have eyes you were sunk. And this set off a five million year arms race of sort of guerilla warfare enhancements, defense and offense, and that’s what created all the remarkably different body types and behavioral types and defense types that mark this great explosion.

Well, he may or may not be right about that, I — I — it’s one of those evolutionary ideas that I am very fond of but I haven’t committed to it because it hasn’t been shown yet. But it’s a plausible and pretty well researched theory. Whether he’s right or wrong, I think something exactly like that has happened now.

All the institutions in human culture, not just religions but armies, governments, banks, relig- uh, corporations, clubs — they have all evolved in a relatively murky epistemological atmosphere where people could be relatively ignorant of things at a distance around the world and even about a lot of their own, the features of their own organizations. And organizations evolved to exploit that ignorance, cause it was — you could rely on it. That ignorance is evaporating at a colossal rate, and we see it, we see it in Edward Snowden. We see it where the security experts are now saying there’s no such thing as a firewall, um, because people, you have to rely on people’s fidelity, because people’s fidelity is infinitely malleable by memes, by all of the information that is floating around in the internet.

Religions: what this new transparency does is, it renders knowledge not just widespread but mutual: it’s not just that everybody knows that p, it’s that everybody knows that everybody knows that p.

Fifty years ago, I’m sure, there were millions of Catholics that knew of a priest who had molested some boys. Millions of them. But nobody knew there were millions of them. Now, millions of Catholics know that millions of Catholics know. And that changes everything. Now, you have a Bishop giving a press conference where he makes a big point of saying you’ll note how I never, whenever there’s a young boy around I’ll always have my hands in front of me. Can you imagine a bishop of the church saying anything like that fifty years ago?

This is an awkward and gauche and ineffective response to the new transparency. Well I think that in itself is going to force every institution in the world to evolve very quickly or go extinct.

And what that does for violence is — it’s not clear. In some ways it may be a great diminution in violence; on the other hand it may unleash forces that we don’t even imagine yet, and make new inroads into violence more likely.

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