The philosopher Dan Dennett, in his terrific book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, coined a phrase that’s echoed in my head ever since I first read it years ago. The phrase is universal acid, and Dennett used it to characterize natural selection—an idea so potent that it eats right through established ideas and (maybe more importantly) institutions—things like, in Darwin’s case, religion. It also resists containment; try to say “well yes, but, that’s just over there” and natural selection burns right through your “yes, but.”
If that’s confusing, the top quarter of this page goes a bit deeper on Dennett’s meaning. It also blockquotes this passage from the book, which gets into the sloshiness of universal acid:
Darwin’s idea had been born as an answer to questions in biology, but it threatened to leak out, offering answers—welcome or not—to questions in cosmology (going in one direction) and psychology (going in the other direction). If [the cause of design in biology] could be a mindless, algorithmic process of evolution, why couldn’t that whole process itself be the product of evolution, and so forth all the way down? And if mindless evolution could account for the breathtakingly clever artifacts of the biosphere, how could the products of our own “real” minds be exempt from an evolutionary explanation? Darwin’s idea thus also threatened to spread all the way up, dissolving the illusion of our own authorship, our own divine spark of creativity and understanding.
(P.S. I think one of the reasons I like the phrase so much is that it seems to pair with Marx’s great line “…all that is solid melts into air.” Except it’s even better, right? Marx just talks about melting. This is more active: this is burning. This is an idea so corrosive it bores a channel to the very center of the earth.)
So I find myself wondering what else might qualify as a universal acid.
I think capitalism must. Joyce Appleby charts the course it took in her wonderful new book The Relentless Revolution. “Relentless” is right—that’s exactly what you’d expect from a universal acid. I think the sloshiness is also there; capitalism transformed not just production and trade but also politics, culture, gender roles, family structure, and on and on.
I suspect, much more hazily, that computation might turn out to be another another kind of universal acid—especially this new generation of diffuse, always-available computation that seems to fuse into the world around us, thanks to giant data-centers and wireless connections and iPads and things yet to come.
But what else? Any other contemporary candidates for universal acid?