“Great revolutions in science have a common denominator: They knock human arrogance off one pedestal after another of our conviction about our own self-importance.”
Science is one of the defining features of our age. Scientific knowledge and the technologies we have developed based on that knowledge have transformed our world. In 1700, over 80 percent of the world’s population lived in abject poverty and average life expectancy was less than forty years. In London, then the world’s most developed city, almost 60 per cent of children died before they reached the age of ten. During the last few turbulent centuries, science and technology have changed everything, ushering in standards of health and income never before seen in history.
Aside from its practical use, science is also one of modern civilisation’s most valuable cultural assets. Science has not only transformed our understanding of ourselves and our place in nature, it has also brought with it a set of values which have helped to bring us out of the dark ages of stagnation and superstition and give us a belief in progress and reason. And in an age that is increasingly characterised by selfishness and self-absorption, science can also provide a powerful remedy for narcissism.
Sigmund Freud lived through one of the most profound scientific revolutions in history – the Darwinian revolution. He was also responsible for another – the discovery of the unconscious mind. These experiences led him to the conclusion that the great revolutions in science have a common denominator – they knock human arrogance off one pedestal after another, and puncture our overly inflated sense of our own self-importance. Freud used three examples of scientific revolutions to argue his case. In the Copernican revolution, our planetary home was relegated from a central place in the universe to the periphery; in the Darwinian revolution, humanity itself was relegated to descent from the animal world; and, in what Stephen Jay Gould described as one of the least modest statements in intellectual history, Freud pointed to his own discovery of the unconscious as having destroyed the myth of a wholly rational and fully conscious human mind.
Our Pale Blue Dot
In 1500, around the time of Copernicus, an educated person would have known how the universe worked. The earth was fixed at the centre of the cosmos, surrounded by a series of clear transparent spheres. Seven spheres held the Sun, the Moon and the other five (then) known planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. A final eighth sphere, which lay beyond these seven, had all the stars attached. This outermost sphere was kept in constant motion by God. At the centre of creation lay the Earth, fixed and immovable, the centre-point and crowning glory of all creation.
Today of course we know that none of this is true. Centuries of scientific discovery have taught us that the Earth revolves on its axis and orbits an average star which is one of hundreds of billions of stars, in a galaxy which is itself one galaxy among hundreds of billions. In terms of cosmic geography, we now know, our coordinates are of no special significance.
For a while after Copernicus though, as the lessons of that revolution sank in, we could at least console ourselves that though we are not physically at the centre of the universe, we did have a special place in God’s creation. Then Darwin changed all that…
The Meaning of Natural Selection
In 1802 the Reverend William Paley published his book ‘Natural Theology, or Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature’. The book presented a series of arguments for God’s existence, His nature and His goodness based on one primary theme – that God reveals his benevolence in the incredible fit between the design of organisms and their appointed styles of life. ‘The hinges in the wings of an earwig, and the joints of its antennae’, Paley wrote, ‘are as highly wrought as if the Creator had nothing else to finish… We have no reason to fear therefore our being forgotten, or overlooked, or neglected.’
Throughout the book, Paley used scientific arguments to prove how much God cared for his creation. Like any good scientist he also considered other explanations, apart from the existence of a Divine Creator, to explain the presence of design in nature. One possibility Paley did consider was that design evolved through incremental adaptations towards a desired goal. This possibility he rejected asking, what use to an elephant is a fraction of a trunk? One possibility he did not consider, however, was that design came about through incremental adaptations, but rather than being a purposeful and positive movement towards a desired goal, design emerged by building adaptations negatively – that is by eliminating all creatures that do not vary fortuitously in a favoured direction. Paley cannot be blamed for not having considered this possibility. No sane person would entertain such a cruel and indirect means of accruing characteristics fit for a given environment – yet this is how natural selection actually works.
After Darwin, it was no longer possible to look at nature for proof of a loving and benevolent God. Instead, Darwin wrote, ‘What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horribly cruel works of nature.’ As Stephen Jay Gould has written, the image of evolution as progressive and positive, building on past successes is deeply engrained in the public mind. It is absolutely not, however, how evolution by natural selection operates.
After Darwin, the entire twentieth century became one continuous scientific revolution during which scientists made astounding progress. We can now trace events from a fraction of a second after the Big Bang to the creation of stars and galaxies. We know that the elements of which we are composed were cooked inside the stars. We have journeyed to the centre of the atom and have developed the theories of quantum mechanics and relativity that take us to the very limits of what it is possible for us to know.
Having suffered the indignation of being dethroned from the centre of the universe by Copernicus, and then being robbed of our special divine place in creation by Darwin, you could be forgiven for thinking that the proper reaction to the revelations of science would be anarchy and despair. In fact, some of the greatest scientists have drawn a different conclusion.
In 1990, the Voyager 1 spacecraft took a picture of Earth from a record distance of around 6 billion kilometres. The Earth appears as a tiny pale blue dot against the vastness of space. Reflecting on this image, astronomer Carl Sagan wrote, ‘Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot… Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.’
In our age of narcissism, the most valuable lesson we can draw from science is humility – the truthful sadness of being merely ourselves. As Sagan said, once again, ‘For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.’