The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Universal acid

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?


My head is spinning, so I’m not sure I’ve really grasped the concept. But, how about language? This morning I finally watched the Phil Zimbardo talk that’s been making the rounds (the one from the RSA Animate series). It’s about “time perspectives”. At around the 3:00 mark, he mentions how the Sicilian dialect used where his family is from does not have a future tense, perhaps perpetuating the “time perspective” predominant in the region. So, if Globish (see also) ends up being universal, would it (or English) also be a universal acid? By learning English, are people more likely to gravitate towards a Protestant ethic? Or does Globish just follow capitalism?

hmm… solipsism? not contemporary. Fanaticism? I’m stuck on ideas. How about, instead of computation, hyperlinked structures (as opposed to hierarchy, e.g. bureaucracy)? It’s the flat, edgeless topology that makes all this so amazing. It’s what gives it the cutting power, really. There’s never been a way to organize people towards a common cause before that didn’t really have a boss, or a series of bosses.

Tim Maly says…

Rule of law is definitely a universal acid.

Also emancipated freedoms and rights. Every step of the way is a steadily expanding definition of person. Hey, what about that group over there? Does this apply to them?

I think that catholicism was probably a universal acid? A single omniscient god sort of demands that you go out and convert people.

I suspect that if we imagine hyperlinked structures–knowledge with embedded meta-information leading to other knowledge–is a universal acid, then computation is far moreso. When computation was first being played with in the 19th century, I think there was an intellectual shift from “Step A + Human + Step B + Human … Step N + Human = Result” to “Step A + Step B … + Step N = Result” without the human involved in the intermediate steps. Computation lets you define a series of steps that require no error checking, yet always produce the right result.

You can apply this idea very broadly and get, among other things: the assembly line, taylorism, graphics, or even just something as simple as lifehacks.

Lastly, the link from which Dennett’s quote was pulled quickly wanders into pretty serious misapprehensions about what the theory of evolution is actually about and what it actually predicts. It does predict language, it does not lead to a pseudo-religious takeover of the educational system by scientists.

I would bet there are far more universal acid ideas than we can mention, if only because once thought of, they seem so natural and basic to our understanding of the world.

The Copernican principle, that we aren’t the (metaphorical or actual) center of the universe, is one that’s also pretty fundamental now but didn’t arrive until relatively late in western history. Some might even argue that it’s still etching its way through our culture, moving from cosmology into areas like the environmental movement.

How about reproduction?

Yeah, I know. We talk about the printing press and what it’s done. But that’s easy fodder. What about how reproduction affects how we see original pieces of art (even ones made before reproduction)? Or how reproduction of recordings gave rise to the idea of an album, and has changed how we evaluate musicians? (Ever see a great studio band that is awful live? That wouldn’t have happened a 100 years ago.)

What’s interesting about reproduction in relation to this idea of universal acid is that reproduction tied to the scarcity of physical artifacts was the catalyst that built up a lot of industries (say record labels and any number of other things). But, now that a lot of reproduction has been disconnected from the limitations of physical reproduction, it’s now corrosively eating away at the institutions it once built. Reproduction giveth, reproduction taketh away.

Essentially what reproduction does is it removes authority from every nook and cranny it touches because it turns everything ephemeral and ubiquitous, and makes everything reproducible available (in theory). Reproduction provides a world delivered on the promise of access, and that accessibility trickles out into what we expect from our relationships, our leadership, our jobs, and many other things.

I think it does disservice to Darwin’s triumphant idea to compare it with intellectual constructs like capitalism or law.

While it’s true many people have succumbed to the temptation of applying Darwinian or evolutional concepts in other matters, the theory of natural selection and evolution doesn’t travel well in such realms. Just think about the pernicious ways in which “social Darwinism” has been misapplied to justify poverty, racism, slavery and the like.

Consider: Appleby herself declares that capitalism is “neither inevitable nor predictable,” but evolution is surely both. Evolution applies whether you want to acknowledge it or not. That’s not true of anything else suggested here.

Dan says…

I’m not so set against these applications as Howard. But I think he has a point. Perhaps we need to fine-tune our language.

If Darwin’s dangerous idea is undirected, unauthored change/evolution, then his ideas do work like a universal acid. In that case, I think the comparison to people talking about “freedom” works very well, as would talk about all humans being created in the image of God, etc. For good or ill, one can pick up these general concepts and see where else they fit.

But if Darwin’s real innovation was to propose natural selection as the means by which that evolution occured, then it refers to a very specific process that we should limit to the organismal world.

Hmm. Somehow this never struck me as metaphorical thinking (and that’s not what I intended to suggest). It’s not, “a-ha, you know, this reminds me of natural selection over here…”—it’s rather, “a-ha, this IS natural selection over here, too.”

Look at Dennett’s point about human cognition: he’s saying hey, we’re part of this system, too. Our very brains came out of this process. So suddenly evolution has things to say about psychology, about sex, about motivation and love—directly, not metaphorically.

So when I say capitalism might be a candidate, it’s because its direct consequences steamrolled through a dozen different domains, not because it’s, like, a useful explanatory tool.

All that said, I’m okay with a lower threshold—very powerful acids, or remarkably potent acids, instead of universal acids, of which there might be very few (or only one).

I’m glad Howard stepped in because even as I was writing up my suggestions, I felt unsure about them “am I just listing off ideas that are currently doing well?”

Maybe instead of capitalism, we want to say industrialization & mass production? I mean that started out as a solution to some pretty specific manufacturing problems but then it grew out and started having opinions about how we should do farming, medicine, chemistry, war, architecture, science, communication…

It doesn’t climb all the way to the cosmos (until we start making self-replicating probes and Dyson spheres I guess) but it does climb right down to the mollecules.

Maybe I’m still off here, and I’m open to being shown how I’m wrong, but I think the “universal acid”must be understood as a creature in the universe of ideas.

Natural selection, as such, does not break down any boundaries of human understanding. Rather, our realization that natural selection provides the single best explanation for species diversity allows us to see that other intellectual boundaries from the past ought not to be boundaries. Lines that separated human from animal or brain from body dissolve away.

Similarly, capitalism doesn’t destroy boundaries of human understanding. But a theory of political economy that focuses on the actions of those who possess and make use of wealth might help us see the world through different categories. The question is: what would those categories be.

That’s why I like “human rights” or “freedom” as a universal acid. Look at places where established intellectual boundaries are currently challenged and ideas that individuals possess certain rights stand prominently in the background.

Isn’t it actually a sign that something can act as a universal acid if it’s easily abused? That’s what makes it dangerous. It’s an idea that can go where it’s “not supposed to.” You can get it wrong. But also, those mistakes don’t actually refute the central idea, but in some sense confirm its power.

Another anecdotal example. It’s a pro-market idea to tie teacher pay (salaries, bonuses, whatever) to student performance. But what that turns out to do is create incentives for teachers and administrators to cheat on the test — which, as a strategy in that environment, is actually pretty optimal. Unintended consequences, sure, but not wholly unexpected ones.

I would suggest Kurt Vonnegut’s idea of ICE-9 (from the novel “Cat’s Cradle) as a competing metaphor for this kind of thing. If you haven’t read the book, ICE-9 is a novel crystal structure of ice stable at earthly temperatures which, when it comes into contact with water, immediately crystallizes the water into more ICE-9. Acting in this way (as a “seed crystal”) if ICE-9 were to come into contact with the ocean it would solidify most all of the water on earth, effectively ending human life.

The essential difference between universal acid and ICE-9 is that while acid burns its way through the things it encounters, destroying them, ICE-9 incorporates them into its crystalline structure. Evolution doesn’t destroy religion, but it forces religion to play by its rules: hence organized religion’s attempts at compatibility with evolution (the 6-day creation story as a metaphor for billions of years of evolution, etc.). Likewise, capitalism doesn’t destroy its antagonists as much as it either buys them out or forces them to sell their anticapitalist books and movies on the open market. It’s an irresistible structure, a structure into which even its opponents must find a place if they are to relevantly and effectively oppose it. Sinister, right?

Evolution is more directly antagonistic to religion than most people seem to recognize. Most immediately, if you believe that God listens to our prayers and will intervene in our affairs, then you don’t believe that evolution applies to the human species. At best, you believe that in the struggle for existence, God has chosen a favorite team in H sapiens.

I would say almost exactly the opposite: evolution by natural selection and various forms of religion (including a variety of forms of Christianity practiced widely in the US) can and have coexisted far better than partisans spoiling for a fight on other side usually allow.

I don’t think that’s necessarily true. . .there’s a lot of stuff packed into the “will” in “will intervene in our affairs.” Do you mean “will always”? Or do you mean “will at some point in the future”? Or do you mean “might”? O ne might believe that the intervention may or may not be what you prayed for; one might believe that praying is not always even the same thing as asking for aid at all. One might believe that God doesn’t particularly care about the local struggle for existence at all.
Major miracles might be conceived of as non-reproducible, unpredictable, anomolous but favorable (to someone) breakages of natural law that are usually perceived in private; believing on utter faith that they might occur is not the same thing as believing that they occur systematically and often enough to impact the statistical tide of evolution.

In fact I would say that most people think that it is much more antagonistic to all religion that it necessarily is. I don’t deny that it is deeply antagonistic to many popular and dominant conceptions of religion, but theology has tremendous room for complexity and has a lot more variants than are usually discussed in this context.

I agree criticism of religion from a biological perspective is near-universally oversimplified. But modern claims of happy coexistence between (organized) religion and evolution have an equal tendency to be facile and underthought.

Agreed, believing that miracles can occur is not the same as believing they will happen systematically, but there do seem to be people who think their prayers are heard on a day-t0-day basis. To say that such a person “believes in evolution” requires a personalized definition of evolution.

But I don’t mean to be overly antagonistic. If people believe that animals evolve and that man descended from apes that’s good, even if it must be qualified by the belief that evolution is a quasi-magical process or by the idea that God takes more interest in some species than in others.

I guess another way to frame my position is that while religion vs. evolution may not be an outright conflict it does seem to rely on some bending of the rules on one side or the other. People do seem willing to bend some rules on the religion side to try to reconcile, and that is appreciated. But to what extent is it okay to “bend the rules” of the evolutionary view?

I guess I should try to be less dogmatic about the one true version of evolution, but I think I’m justified in being wary of the feel good “we can all get along” position if it involves too much wholesale personalization of what is supposed to be a scientific theory.

Dan says…

Peter: without trying to be obtuse intentionally, I’m afraid I can’t quite figure out how a belief in the efficacy of intercessory prayer necessarily contradicts Darwin’s take on natural selection or today’s evolutionary synthesis. Can you help me out?

I certainly do see how dangerous natural selection can appear to those seeking support for their faith in God from the mechanics of the natural world. Evolution by natural selection posits an explanation for species diversity and change that doesn’t need divine intervention. It shows materialist principles to be sufficient to explain much of the variation that characterizes nature. Those still operating in the nineteenth century tradition of William Paley’s Natural Theology—i.e., those who seek proof of God in nature’s miraculous character—have a much harder time in a post On the Origin of Species world.

Yet I don’t see that evolution by natural selection, as an explanation for the means by which variations in individuals come to be consistent variations found in species, precludes one believing in God or even in miracles, all the same. It makes such a belief harder to support by taking away one realm of study form which to glean support. But it’s hardly a knock-out blow. Evolution by natural selection has proven over and over to be sufficient as means toward explaining much of the natural world, but I don’t see that it claims to explain all of the natural world and thus I don’t see its conflict with the belief of some that there is still room for the supernatural in the universe.

Now, you can just dislike the idea that people want to believe in the supernatural. I can see that and understand that. But in general I’m with William James here and would rather defend the individual’s power to choose to believe, and thereby keep our options open, until field by field better hypotheses entirely crowd out the supernatural, or don’t.

Hi Dan, here goes nothing…

Belief in intercessory prayer contradicts evolution by natural selection because it requires that at least one species of animal is not at the mercy of natural laws of selection. Certainly we can try to titrate our view so that humans are mostly at the mercy of natural laws, in which case we mostly believe in evolution but perhaps should not believe quite so much in prayer. To me this is problematic.

Alternatively, we can incorporate prayer into the theory of selection: given that God answers prayers, it is adaptive to be a person who prays. But then we have given up on evolution as a naturalistic, scientific theory. Maybe this is not untenable; as pointed out, you can still be an evolutionary biologist and use evolution as a scientific framework even if you believe there is some magic somewhere in the process.*

Your point of sufficiency is also important. Why believe supernatural explanations if natural explanations suffice? Of course, there are very human reasons for wanting certain supernatural tenets to be true. I don’t have too much problem with wanting to disbelieve sufficient natural explanations some of the time, or organizing a spirituality around this desire. But I do have a problem with being asked to disbelieve natural explanations in favor of specific supernatural explanations whose authority derives from gurus or texts. If we are to accept any pick-and-choose approach in the applicability of natural laws, we should be very critical of how we are picking and choosing.

On the question of whether evolution deals a knock-out blow to God’s place in the natural world, I agree there are still plenty of mysteries, perhaps more in cosmology now than in biology. (There’s a reason biologists skew atheist more strongly than other scientists.) I considered myself agnostic for a long time because of these remaining mysteries. Still, I do think evolution is a serious blow to the concept of a personal deity. As the things in the universe that lack sufficient natural explanations dwindle, the deity becomes more impersonal. This leads to a hands-off, Great Architect kind of theology, which I inevitably see as a Ship of the World perspective; maybe that makes me a pessimist.

William James was wise. Another point he made is that our perspectives on religious questions stem more from personal experience than from abstract reasoning. I can accept people choosing supernatural explanations over sufficient natural explanations some of the time, but when the questions impact outside of our own personal spirituality is a pick-and-choose approach to naturalism acceptable? Everyone having his or her own subtly different version of evolution is probably okay most of the time, but I don’t agree that it means everything is hunky dory and we can assume no serious, meaningful conflict will arise.

* (Without claiming it as support for my perspective I think it’s of interest to note Darwin’s take on all this, which is no mystery. Alfred Wallace, evolution’s co-discoverer, stuck to the belief that evolution generated all life on Earth other than humans, but that (at least the intelligence if not the form of) humankind must have been divinely inspired. Darwin consistently rejected that view, and gave up his religion as a result of his thinking on evolution.)

I’m going to reopen this, because I’m not necessarily sure what the problem is. For the purposes of this counter-argument, I’ll try to limit my position to the class of argument to religions that believe in a divine being or beings that intervene in the world in response to prayer.

Peter’s problem is that this supposes that God (or presumably gods) have a chosen team in homo sapiens. Why exactly is this a problem? It’s not as if it’s a hidden assumption. If you’re an adherent of one of these religions, it would make sense to say, yes, of course; furthermore that God(s) have a chosen subteam of adherents to a particular religion or subset of religions, that God further typically only grants some prayers to some people some of the time.

Now, once you’ve titrated that down further to consider the subset of those prayers that directly or even indirectly bear on evolutionary descent and/or change — as opposed to prayers for patience, or for extraterrestrial favors (after all, a good deal of what most religions are interested in pertains to the fate of your soul, not your genes), than I think you could say that the impact of intercessory prayer on the evolution of the species is negligible. Nor, again, are most prayers concerned with such things.

I’m pretty sure that the idea and name “universal acid” is from Dungeons and Dragons. I never played D&D (couldn’t get enough geeky friends together in a room, I guess), but I read the manual, and because I remember everything I read that’s sufficiently useless, there’s something called “universal solvent” that actually does eat through anything.

Sorry. It just makes me laugh.

Tim, I think the number of people who read the manual(s) probably outnumbers the people who actually played :).

That would be me. Didn’t have anyone to play it with. 🙁

I wrote a column about this for Futurismic!

“Universal acide” might come from D&D, but “universal solvent” doesn’t. It’s the name of a concept from alchemy (as it existed in the real world), a sought-after substance sometimes called Alkahest. It’s also a name sometimes given to water (it’s gently, but will break down pretty much everything given enough time). The name Alkahest comes from the Swiss renaissance physician/alchemist/philosopher/etc Paracelsus.

“Universal acid” sounds suspiciously like somebody had heard of the “universal solvent” concept but misremembered what it was called.

Hmmm, sounds like Marx had been reading his Shakespeare

At first I was going to say that Quantum Mechanics is a “universal acid”, but I think one thing that makes “acid” apt in describing evolution is that it’s so simple and, as Howard says, inevitable. On the other hand, “acid” is inadequate in capturing the beauty and elegance that is contained in evolution’s simplicity. More apt IMO: “evolution is biological Mozart”.

Evolution is probably the closest that biology gets to the simplicity, power, and elegance of physical laws like gravity, electromagnetism, etc. It sure beats the hell out of the Krebs cycle (sorry Hans). One of the striking things about evolution is that you can explain it to a fourth grader (roughly?) and she will get it, and she will see that it’s as inevitable as a rock hitting the ground if you drop it from your hand. Capitalism seems to pass this test to me: at a fundamental level, kids get it (although new research shows that they aren’t really sold on it until a certain age… [And as a tangent to this tangent, you should really check out the Science Magazine Podcast if, like me, you need breaks from the breeziness of RadioLab]).

@Howard, interesting to consider Social Darwinism. Obviously this was a historical abuse of Darwin’s ideas, but at the same time there are important aspects of psychology, anthropology, and sociology where the descent of man is directly relevant. It seems especially telling that after the fiasco of Social Darwinism, the scientific field eventually returned as Sociobiology, which was then “discredited” and subsequently rehabilitated in modern science as Evolutionary Biology. So, yes, bringing Darwin outside zoology is problematic, but in the end this effort seems to have powered through its historical missteps.

Sorry, the abstract on that Science article is pretty murky. The podcast is clearer.

I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around what he means, and therefore a hard time coming up with comparisons, or understanding the ones already proposed. Concepts & frameworks that spread like wildfire once they were articulated and transmitted to a critical mass? Presumably patriarchy/misogyny back in the day? The wheel in the old world? Law does seem like a good one. A hazy version of Buddhism: some idealization of the notions compassion, humility, right action? I feel like capitalism & democracy both faced way more effective resistance in their own arenas. The calculus? Newtonian physics—not just the thing itself but the framework it created that the rest of physics and to some extent the rest of science relies on: mathematically formulated laws extracted from empirical derivation, models built on those laws, systematic ways of fine-tuning those models.

I think the development of the calculus and Newtonian physics qualifies as a peer to natural selection regardless; at some level it laid down the mechanical foundation for even looking at the world that way, but moreover, it did completely change everything, eventually: how things were designed and built, how people conceived of themselves and their creator, and most importantly, how large swathes of regular people actually lived. I’m not sure evolution has *yet* had a chance to truly do that to its full potential, constrained as it is. It’s only in the last 50 years or so that biomedical research has really allowed itself to be guided by it, and unless later classes of antibiotics were really discovered through evolutionarily motivated work (anyone know?), I’m not sure that the results have had quite as much impact on as much a proportion of the world’s people.

Newton’s theory of gravitation works even better than the Calculus: Newton claimed and demonstrated that the same laws operated on Earth as in the Heavens. Talk about dissolving categories! Bye-bye Earth/Heavens dichotomy—at least, in so far as physical laws are concerned.

Calculus breaks the boundary between the finite and the infinite.

here’s my stab at defining the conditions of a “universal acid” for ideas. It’s any explanation that threatens/promises to jump a level of description.

So Darwinian evolution: here’s this powerful explanation for how animal species develop in response to their environment. But wait: it also seems to apply to the development of the environment, too. And to the individual genes inside the species. And to the mind of the species formulating the idea. Und so weiter.

Ditto capitalism, as an explanation of human behavior. And it’s a similar story. I can describe how an agent acts in a marketplace, I can describe the evolution of that marketplace, I can describe why I’m writing this paper, whether or not my ideas will be successful, usw., all with the same elegant analytic tools. And it’s not just a game; it actually does have strong explanatory value.

The last, new example I’ll give is Gödel-numbering; this observation that if I treat mathematical arguments as symbol-manipulation, that I’ll be able to treat the logical arguments like mathematical equations, and in fact, those equations will be able to talk about themselves. And that process in turn has lots to say about computability, among other things. But it’s the level-jumping that makes it work.

I love the Godel number example. Mix it with Claude Shannon’s information theory and you get close to pointing out the roots of Robin’s initial idea of “computation” as a universal acid.

Following Peter (I guess there’s a limit to the threading?) I feel like the theory of gravity is too bound with The Calculus to separate them.

Tim, I wonder if your level jumping explanation helps explain the popularity of Buddhism in Asia. It always blows my mind when I think about how quickly and thoroughly, with relatively little conquest and bloodshed, this crazy prince-monk’s ideas & adulations spread across landscapes that were both socially and geologically hostile to the spreading. It’s tremendously difficult to travel between South Asia & the rest of Asia, and yet it was Buddhism that forced the travel to become regular. But it starts off as a model of the origins of suffering and the end of suffering, and seems really only relevant to the ascetic individual; somehow it becomes entrenched in social organization, the pursuit of anything that requires skill and practice, the relationships of humans to animals and plans. Even as India eventually shrugged it off and reverted back to Hinduism, it entirely digested it, as Hinduism is wont to do.

I guess part of me is also just trying to nudge this thread towards a more global conception; so much history is not the history of ideas that originated in or were flexed through the British Isles, and so many people went through major changes without them. Without trying to think about other applications, something as grandiose sounding as Universal Acid seems doomed to remain parochial. I’m perhaps (again) frustrated with myself for knowing so much more about European history than, say, my own.

Hmm. I just read a whole book about the history of the world from a Muslim POV, so I ought to have something relevant to add in this regard. (Re: non-European history.)

One candidate might be Islam’s concept of the umma—a community of equals, admission to which was open to all. This was a BIG radical idea, and a big part of Islam’s early appeal.

But see, I don’t think it counts as any kind of acid, b/c it doesn’t jump the fences. It doesn’t go, “Surprise! I just changed the way you think about astronomy!”—etc.

Being an acid is not about being popular; it’s about burning through boundaries between domains & disciplines. (And, given that definition, I totally buy your description of Buddhism as an acid.)

As for the Calculus and gravitation, I meant only to add to Saheli’s great choice of Newton, not to criticize, and Peter’s formation was a further improvement.

I wonder if the “umma” could be seen as revolutionary in an even more important way than a revolutionary idea in astronomy: it changes the way one thinks about who belongs, about who is in and who is out. Those questions of how to define a community are among the most fundamental that societies and individuals deal with.

it’s about burn­ing through bound­aries between domains & dis­ci­plines.

So it’s a conceptual acid–not about its spread through the mindspace of the humanity, but it’s spread through the ideaspace of humanity. Does it always have to have one origin, one single trajectory? Can it wax in and out? Can it get neutralized? It seems like there are certainly such things as universal bases[1]: corrosive cognitive states of being can very easily resist world changing ideas. Equality had lots of little shoots springing up around the world and throughout history, but hierarchy, dominion & royalty are also pretty powerful counterweights. Buddism is supposed to be about nonviolence, but despite the fact that Asia embraced it, Asia still has a really violent history.

[1]Aieee! You’ve gotten me associating a moral value with hydronium over hydroxide? pH normativity alert!

Oh no worries, Dan, I was just pondering out loud whether or not they were separable. I mean, really, I have little idea, I’m just thinking they’re not.

(One of my favorite inscrutable phrases from 19th century science: ponderable bodies .)

Jan B. says…

For me, seeing human society et al. as something akin to a slime mold is gestalt-laden; it’s a captivating, over-arching and therefore acidic framework within which economics and politics can be considered. For instance: from that stance, one can view “gated communities” as little petri dishes of social experimentation. One could see the waxing and waning of income disparity as the organism’s production of scouting colonies.

Howard Bloom, The Lucifer Principle — stimulating, but I wish the likes of Dennett himself would read this alongside of Donald L. Nathanson’s Shame and Pride, and maybe also Doug Rushkoff’s Life, Inc.

This is in reply to Peter up above about evolution & religion; we seem to have really broken the threading software this time.

No antagonism sensed or presented here; I merely felt dutybound to point out that Religion is a much bigger set of possible theologies & belief/practice systems than the high signal subset which logically precludes a wholesale acceptance of orthodox evolutionary theory. For various historical, geographical and cultural reasons, that subset gets a lot of press, and I think it gets confused with the sum total of all that Religion or (Organized Religion) is, was, or can possibly be. I think this is totally understandable because the people you mention are loud and proud, especially in the United States; I happen to theologically disagree with them just as vehemently as I intellectually hope their beliefs don’t get heavy application in the public sphere. This whole thread was predicated on discussing ‘universals’ and I just have an ornery tendency of pointing out that the spaces and subspaces we’re talking about are often far, far bigger than people might realize. I tend to use the word Abrahamic a lot, because I think a lot of what Americans refer to as Religion is overwhelmingly centered on that family of religions.

(Obviously, if you read my comments a lot, you know that I’m religious; what might be less obvious–since I’m no longer in science directly–is that I’m about as accepting of & committed to orthodox evolutionary theory as one can be without making it a professional matter; I’m not a computer and can’t prove the perfect rationality or consistency of my mind–and in fact, somewhat rationally expect that I’m not entirely consistent–but I’ve personally never felt particularly torn on either count because of the other. One of the most devout lay people I know is a professional evolutionary biologist, someone who literally stakes their sweat and tears and toil on better understanding, applying, and elaborating on the mainstream of evolutionary theory. For various reasons, I just can’t sit still if someone insists, indirectly, that they aren’t doing good work.)

If you are just a regular person going about your business and trying to make sense of the world around you, I think you should be as free to make amendments to evolutionary theory so that it sits well in your head but still be useful (for say, voting reasonably on public policy or knowing how to run your garden) just as I think regular people should be free to amend their notion of Newtonian physics or even quantum mechanics with whatever hokey and ill-fitted analogy allows them to hold it in their head and do useful things with it. I don’t think every human being needs to undergo an evolutionary theory orthodoxy test. But scientists & professionals relying on evolutionary theory seem dutybound to constantly strive for a deeper and more complete understanding of the most empirically theory possible, without compromises. I’m just arguing that that’s quite possible for a lot of people to do without giving up their idea of God. (Which is not necessarily the same thing as other people’s idea about their idea). I’m sure there are religions that evolutionary theory is antagonistic too, but they are not the sum total of Religion.

I guess I’d wonder (and this is more relevant to the thread, finally) if there’s an important difference between evolutionary theory for the natural selection of living species as it is based on a mountain of biological, archeological and ecological facts, and natural selection as an idea that has useful application in other arenas, like computer programming, political theory, game theory, or storytelling. I think it was this breakout/crossover appeal that Robin was thinking of, and where Tim’s multilevel application narrative comes in? I’m still not entirely sure I understand this whole acidity thing.

Tim Carmody says…

I think the best practice we’ve been following for ultrathreaded comments (where you run out of room to reply) is to reply at the lowest level you can, i.e. reply to the thread one level up of the comment you’re replying to.

So it would be:


…Reply to comment
……Reply to reply
……Reply to reply OR reply to reply to reply

And so forth. (Talk about jumping levels.)

I also want to distinguish between jumping up or down a level and jumping across a discipline. Applying concepts from evolutionary theory to, say, technological development is (while highly useful), is conceptually and practically different from applying the same concepts to genetics or neuroscience or ecosystems, where you’re moving from parts to wholes in ways that clearly and nonmetaphorically implicate each other. It’s that boomerang effect/Copernican revolution/Gödelian self-reference that has given evolutionary theory its power; it’s also what makes it so elemental in biology and life sciences.

It’s also one place where potential universal acids can go wrong. Let’s take economics. It might be a stretch to say that nation-states in international relations act like individuals making decisions at a market, even though (or precisely because) nation-states are composed of lots of individuals. Or maybe what’s true in the aggregate (which washes out a lot of stray noise) isn’t true of individuals (whose lives are mostly that noise). It’s hard to say. Newtonian laws that work really well for falling bodies and just as well for planetary orbits aren’t so great at quantum mechanics — so we need a bigger theory if we want to move between levels as easily.

Finally, in some fields (like physics) level-jumping is practically a necessity, while in others (like pre-Gödelian mathematics, or early evolutionary theory), it might come as an uncomfortable surprise.

And a short P.S. re: the religion vs evolution thread above; this is the perfect opportunity for me to kick off a long series of posts telling you why the dogmas of BOTH modern science and traditional religion are false…

… and only Scientology can provide the Answers.

(Oho! It’s the long con!)


Wait, so it’s the clear and nonmetaphorical cross level, cross discipline implication that make the acid? Yes! Okay, I think I finally get it.

It explains so much about my new theory of occult vulcanology. . .

I broke some threading too and have some comments that are lost in the ether now. It was after my first comment when I then replied to my own comment 3 times. Now the server thinks my last level of comments are there, but they’re not showing. But perhaps this is a useful safeguard against boors who self-comment excessively…

Hi Saheli, as you already know I’m a scientist, but maybe you don’t know that I’m not aspiritual. I’m actually kind of an agnostic/atheist/lapsed-secular-Buddhist. Spiritualism is important and valuable to me. I love the Robert Frost epigraph:

But God’s own descent into flesh was meant as a demonstration

That the supreme merit lay in risking spirit in substantiation.

(So much better than Auden’s old man epigraphs…)

It happens that in my personal lexicon “religion” (especially if I am being critical) tends to mean “organized religion” while “spirituality” means everything else. And I am certainly guilty of skewing very Abrahamic very often, for all the reasons you point out, although I think the problems I tried to lay out in truly reconciling evolution and religion extend to non-Abrahamic religions too?

Certainly there are biologists who are very religious, although they are a small minority (5.5% of biologists believe in God according to Nature‘s 1996 survey, compared to 14.3% of mathematicians and 80-90% of the general US population in various surveys from that period). Not that I think the statistics speak to quality; I would never question a scientist’s work based on his/her religious position unless there was reason to believe it directly biased the results (which can cut either way). What I do think is that the question of being a religious evolutionary biologist probably has at least a little to do with the human capacity to hold two unreconciled ideas at the same time, rather than being just about the prospects for reconciling the two perspectives.

Before Tim dings me: the Frost lines are an epigraph and an epigram, whereas the Auden lines I was referring to are epigrams…

Tim Carmody says…

Huh? What? Oh…. Um, good. Glad you cleared that up. Just don’t do it again.

lthough I think the prob­lems I tried to lay out in truly rec­on­cil­ing evo­lu­tion and reli­gion extend to non-Abrahamic reli­gions too?

First of all, I wasn’t saying that these issues necessarily apply to all Abrahamic religions–I can’t claim any kind of expertise over all of them, and Dan seems to be making a well-informed argument that they don’t over at least some. I was more pointing out that there are a lot of things that people associate with Religion that are actually Abrahamic Religion: the innate superiority of human souls over animal souls, for one small instance. I don’t think this is really a good thread for me to open an entire theological exposition on my own religion, which is the only one I can claim any true knowledge of, but basically, I would say the answer is, no, I don’t think they do. Any basically, my only point is this: the set of possible theological belief systems is very large, and by its nature flexible. Generalizing about them is difficult.

You got me that time Tim! Apologies for starting the ultra-civil flame war. As amends I will return to the original topic before following up on the other stuff.

My submission for potential future universal acid: chaos theory. This has clearly spread from applied physics, number theory, and geometry into most other branches of science. It seems relevant to philosophy and theology as well, and I predict it will become increasingly influential across disciplines. Fundamentally, the insight is that simple, fully deterministic systems can lead to unpredictable and beautiful output. We used to think that if a system behaved unpredictably, it was because we hadn’t found all the parameters, or the system was intractably subtle and complex, or there was some unrecognized, uncontrolled random noise source. Now we know that from very simple starting principles, a fully deterministic system with no random noise can still generate pseudo-random, unpredictable results. Moreover we have some elementary systematic understanding of this effect, e.g. you can get pseudo-random unpredictability in a three-body gravitational system, but not a two-body one.

I should offer apologies too for getting it going! But indeed, quite civil.

I feel like Chaos theory really needs more popular media about it for exactly this reason. It seems like it’s a subject ripe for comics explorations, or interactive explorations. I think it also passes Tim’s nonmetaphorical implication smell test by connecting the mathematical and physical sciences with social and behavioral science. The thing about these pseudorandom results is that they still have certain bounds and statistical properties. This is going back to a New Liberal Arts kind of topic—the ideas I was playing with but failed to write–but the ability to be able to formulate models and theories despite & because of a certain level unpredictability–to be able to work with predictably fuzzy, flexible models and visualize a changing future. As you point out, spending enough time on them does yield a weird sort of insight. A generation of economics or psychology thinkers who really felt comfortable with chaotic theories might make all kinds of conceptual leaps.

But this makes me wonder—is there going to be another acid? Might people be too specialized? After reading the metaphysical club I was struck by how interdisciplinary scholars were, how normal it was for a mathematician and a biogeographer and a philosopher to talk to each other about their cutting edge work and influence each other with their brand new ideas. There were many generations of well read people with their fingers in many different pies who eagerly snarfed up Darwin’s work and immediately and continously applied it to their own–would that happen today?

No apologies here! Snarkmarket was lucky to host our civility.

Incorporating systems/complexity theory along with chaos theory has the benefit of presenting an interesting variant on Tim’s earlier evocation of problems of scale. Steven Wolfram clearly hoped that his new kind of science would be exactly a Darwinian kind of universal acid—actually, I think he compared himself to Galileo—but even without a Wolfram-revolution, I think natural and social scientists from a variety of fields have begun to think about their problems in terms of complexly-behaving systems, instead of in terms of simply interacting individuals.

“Snarkmarket was lucky to host our civility.” It’s true!

According to WP, a popular take on Chaos Theory is the “Butterfly Effect”, where a tiny change in input creates a huge, unexpected change in output. This has made it into the popular consciousness, for example in SciFi plots involving time travel. And it’s true that unexpected sensitivity to input conditions is a fundamental part of Chaos Theory.

But I find the more profound side of the theory is as outlined above. It’s not just that the results are very sensitive to starting conditions, it’s that the results can be chaotic despite very simple interactions within a very simple, deterministic system. And perhaps also worthwhile is the insight that a seemingly simple system can appear to behave nice and simply most of the time, but given certain input conditions it suddenly reverts to chaos.

I wonder if there is a popular trope that hits on these other aspects of Chaos Theory. The Butterfly Effect is just not doing it for me.

@Saheli, interesting question: what conditions are required for a new acid to be possible? I think we are okay here. Seems to me that what’s required for acid is just that a few people are looking across boundaries for solutions in their own field, or looking for ways to apply the tools of their field to new ones. This is going on. What you point out is that there are few people who really know many fields at once. This I think limits grand syntheses, but acid is probably still possible?

My worry is that if those “few people” who are interdisciplinary thinks are too marginalized in their “main” fields (as opposed to the old days, when the dominating experts in any given field were also pretty good at other fields too) then their adventurism won’t pay off: they won’t be listened to when they try to import and expand the ideas across boundaries and up and down levels. I work with a lot of interdisciplinary collaborations, and a common lament is that mainstream members in each field only truly respect people with serious accomplishments in their field, and it’s pretty difficult to be an interdisciplinary innovator and maintain full expertise in all the subfields.

I think it may be true that the interdisciplinary innovators are not as respected as the old warhorses of the field, but I still have hope that their ideas can leak out and permeate.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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