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Universal and the Meaning of Life

jrlewis's picture

Julia Lewis
Professor Dalke

“What would happen if you somehow came upon or created a dollop of universal acid? …  Little did I realize that in a few years I would encounter an idea-Darwin’s idea-bearing and unmistakable likeness to universal acid: it eats through just about everything traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.”  (Dennett 63)

As a chemistry-biology double major, I was intrigued by Dennet’s use of the universal acid concept to explain the theory of evolution.  A universal acid is an imaginary and impossible substance that eats through any container.  In ordinary chemical terminology, an acid is a substance capable of donating protons; it increases the concentration of protons in solution.  A more sophisticated chemical definition of an acid is a substance that accepts electron pairs.  Both these characterizations imply a duality; an acid requires a base with which to react.   In the event that two acids come in contact, the weaker acid acts as the base.  In the case of a universal acid, everything it comes in contact with would behave as a base.  The bases in Dennet’s metaphor would be art, culture, humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, religion, or any other human creation.  None of the concepts are capable of withstanding the corrosive properties of the theory of evolution.   Therefore, other fields have accepted concept of evolution and incorporated it into their own cannon. 

When an acid and a base interact a chemical reaction occurs.  A chemical reaction is a process in which one or more substances are converted into other substances, also called chemical change.  The elemental composition and properties of the reactants differ from the products. It is interesting to note an inconsistency in Dennett’s chemical metaphor for evolution.  At the end of the book, he substitutes the term universal solvent for universal acid.  A solvent is the dissolving medium of a solution; it is normally the component of the solution present in the largest amount.  The solvent provides a change in context or environment of a chemical, not identity.  Perhaps this is simply an innocent mistake by someone with limited chemical knowledge.  Or that I am a hyper-sensitive reader, seeking technical precision that is neither interesting nor useful to the ordinary reader.  An acid-base reaction indicates that the acid is no longer the same chemical compound nor is the base.  This implies that every time the theory of evolution interacts with another idea it undergoes a conceptual change.  The theory of evolution is and has been undergoing an intellectual evolution; it has changed over time.  However, Dennett’s discourse on the universal acid only describes how the base is modified in the course of a reaction.  He is only telling half the story of the interaction between evolution and the rest of our ideas. 

However, with a little chemical knowledge and a lot of imagination, Dennett’s metaphor can be extended to talk about the reaction between the theory of evolution and other important ideas.  The modern synthesis of genetics and evolutionary biology is beautifully modeled by the Friedel-Crafts alkylation.  In the Friedel-Crafts reaction a carbon-carbon bond if formed between two different organic compounds.  One of the reactants is an alkyl halide a Lewis acid or the theory of evolution.  The other reagent is a benzene ring, which acts as a Lewis base an alternative theory.  In the course of the reaction, the Lewis base uses its pi electrons to attack the acidic carbon on the Lewis acid.  The result of the attack is the creation of a carbon-carbon bond between the two molecules. In this case, a chemical bond results from the strong attraction between two carbon atoms with opposing properties.  The consequences of the conflict between Mendelian genetics and the theory of evolution were the fusion of two scientific fields.  Initially, the particulate nature of Mendelian genetics was perceived as inconsistent with the Darwinian story of slow gradual change.  The attacks by some Mendelians on the theories of inheritance associated with evolution, lead to new work on understanding population genetics.  The product of such a reaction is a single compound of greater complexity and sophistication than either of the starting materials.  This metaphor illustrates the idea that conflict can be generative, a significant theme in Dennett’s work.  

Now that we have explored the content of Dennett’s metaphor, I would like to consider his stylistic approach.  I intend to reinterpret Dennett’s universal acid metaphor from a more literary perspective.  The abstract component of the metaphor is the theory of evolution; it is that which needs explanation.  The concrete element is the concept of a universal acid.  A universal acid is an imaginary creation, something that is physically impossible to achieve or produce.  The story of the universal acid is paradoxical.  Can a paradox function as the concrete component of a metaphor? Maybe, the idea of a paradox was what Dennett was trying to get at.  That people perceive the theory of evolution with such fear, they imbue it with all sorts of fantastic powers. These imaginings are simply creations of the human mind, exaggerations at that.  Reverting to an almost childlike state of irrational fear of monsters.  Eawhite writes”

“about the early days when my daughter seriously believed there were monsters in her bedroom…  At some point we all have un-stomp-able fantasies, like her monsters, which at a later point we recognize as stomp-able fantasies - sometimes stomped by us and sometimes by others.”

In this story, stomping is the act of shattering a person’s particular delusions and illusions.  Stomping on a concept is the act of demoting a truth to the status of a less-useful story or a falsehood.  Dennett is attempting to stomp on people’s impression that the theory of evolution is a ferocious monster capable of devouring their other cherished stories.  This theme is at the heart of his persuasive argument about the intellectual potential of the theory of evolution.  His numerous examples of the applications of the theory of evolution should not be considered an avalanche of evidence.  Rather, it is an effort to present the evolution processes is small manageable portions to the reader.  It is a gentle and more sensible tactic than asking the reader to grasp the complete concept instantaneously.  Such is his pedagogy for better or worse; Dennet is trying to teach his reader about the theory of evolution.  

Works Cited

Brown Theodore L., Bursten, Bruce E., LeMay, H Eugene Jr., Chemistry: The Central Science. 7th ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1997

Dennett, Daniel. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life.  New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1995

Eawhite, “Changing Places.” Serendip. February 22 2009. /exchange/node/3853#comment-93735

Loudon, G. Marc.  Organic Chemistry. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002


Anne Dalke's picture

chemical reaction


Being a chemistry major gives you a great angle from which to interrogate Dennett’s style and substance; I admire how carefully you read him, and how far you push the limits of his metaphorization. As in your earlier paper, reading Darwin as a fiction writer, you do a nice job bringing together tools from each of the two cultures.

Really thinking through what happens in a chemical reaction first enables you to show how Dennett “is only telling half the story.” The second task you set yourself—to figure out how “a paradox can function as the concrete component of a metaphor”—is a little more complex, and I think its working-through a little more tangled. I liked following your thought-experiment, that Dennett used a paradox precisely to “stomp” on our delusion that “the theory of evolution is a ferocious monster capable of devouring our other cherished stories.”

The only problem w/ that….? Is that—isn’t it?—is that that’s precisely the story Dennett is telling…? Isn’t he himself a “stomper” of a particularly pronounced variety?