Did you ever hear of universal acid? This fantasy used to amuse me and some of my schoolboy friends—I have no idea whether we invented or inherited it, along with Spanish fly and saltpeter, as a part of underground youth culture. Universal acid is a liquid so corrosive that it will eat through anything! The problem is: what do you keep it in? It dissolves glass bottles and stainless-steel canisters as readily as paper bags. What would happen if you somehow came upon or created a dollop of universal acid? Would the whole planet eventually be destroyed? What would it leave in its wake? After everything had been transformed by its encounter with universal acid, what would the world look like? Little did I realize that in a few years I would encounter an idea—Darwin’s idea—bearing an unmistakable likeness to universal acid: it eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.
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 redesign 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.
Much of the controversy and anxiety that has enveloped Darwin’s idea ever since can be understood as a series of failed campaigns in the struggle to contain Darwin’s idea within some acceptably “safe” and merely partial revolution. Cede some or all of modern biology to Darwin, perhaps, but hold the line there! Keep Darwinian thinking out of cosmology, out of psychology, out of human culture, out of ethics, politics, and religion! In these campaigns, many battles have been won by the forces of containment: flawed applications of Darwin’s idea have been exposed and discredited, beaten back by the champions of the pre-Darwinian tradition. But new waves of Darwinian thinking keep coming. They seem to be improved versions, not vulnerable to the refutations that defeated their predecessors, but are they sound extensions of the unquestionably sound Darwinian core idea, or might they, too, be perversions of it, and even more virulent, more dangerous, than the abuses of Darwin already refuted.
Opponents of the spread differ sharply over tactics. Just where should the protective dikes be built? Should we try to contain the idea within biology itself, with one post-Darwinian counterrevolution or another? Among those who have favored this tactic is Stephen Jay Gould, who has offered several different revolutions of containment. Or should we place the barriers farther out? To get our bearings in this series of campaigns, we should start with a crude map of the pre-Darwinian territory. As we shall see, it will have to be revised again and again to make accommodations as various skirmishes are lost.
It’s a great metaphor. And I think we can expect this same sort of phenomenon– a memetic cascade that leaves everything permanently transformed– from research into consciousness also.
What might this look like? Essentially, Darwin’s idea of evolution made us anti-realists about almost everything. Disparate things that we took as ontologically basic- bedrock foundations of reality such as the tree of life, the human telos, perhaps even time itself– were revealed to be slightly leaky reifications, all built by the same underlying generative process.
Formal research into qualia, however, flows in the opposite direction: it promises to take concepts that seem leaky, like meaning, sentience, and value, and offer an ontologically-crisp, context-independent, stable-under-self-reflection, unifying foundation for understanding exactly what they are– and also formal methods for aggregating & evaluating them across space, time, & species. Darwin’s idea of evolution fractured and undermined our traditional conceptions of meaning; qualia research may remake them in a stronger form, as objective and impervious to deconstruction as is physics itself.
We look back at the pre-Darwin world and think, “how blind our ancestors were, to miss something that important!” – but it seems likely that future civilizations will look back at the time before a formal theory of qualia was developed in much the same way.