You Are a Fluke of the Universe

 

 

William S. Abruzzi

 

(2009)

 

 

 

 

 

Ethnocentrism is kind of silly when you really think about it.

 

 

 

For many centuries, humans have believed that they are the most important species on earth and in the universe.  All other species, many people believe,  were created to satisfy the needs of humans for food clothing and shelter.  All of this, was supposedly done by a god who, for several thousands of years, has been obsessively concerned with every single human being's individual beliefs and actions.  This is the view that is presented in the Bible (and in many other religious books) and that has been handed down for several centuries.  In Genesis (the first book of the Bible), all of the plants and animals on earth were created by the god of the ancient Israelites for humankind's benefit, and humans were given dominion over all of the earth.  Humans, according to the Biblical view, are at the center of all creation. 

 

Such an anthropocentric world view, is not unique to Christians or Jews, or to Westerners.  So important do all human groups generally view themselves that most societies' very name for themselves can be roughly translated to mean "the people." The Navajo name for themselves  --"Dine"--  means the people.  When the Yanomamo finally accept Napoleon Chagnon as one of them, they paid him the highest compliment by saying that he has become almost human, "almost a Yanomamo."  People are also very likely to view themselves and their society as existing at the center of all things.  Traditionally, in most school maps used in the U.S., North America is at the center, with Europe and Africa to the east and Asia to the west. The ancient Chinese referred to themselves as the "Middle Kingdom".  In the same way, Medieval Europeans believed in what is today referred to as a geocentric view of the universe, a model of the universe which placed the earth at the center, around which all of the planets and stars (and heaven) revolved.

 

 

 

 

Anthropologists want to understand why certain beliefs exist and how they relate to the social, economic and political behavior and organization of the people who hold them (see for example, Genealogy, Politics, History (and a Little Sex) in the Book of Genesis).  The geocentric view of the universe supported the dominant political and religious institutions and authorities of the day.  The medieval Church claimed authority over the populace on the basis of the belief in special creation (as told in Genesis) together with the principle of Apostolic Succession, wherein Church leaders from the Pope on down to the local priest were seen as the direct successors of Jesus' appointed disciples (Apostles).  Church leaders were, thus, the sole arbiters of the "true faith", and the legitimacy of their rule was validated by the centrality of Europe and Christianity in their god's scheme of things.  Inasmuch as the geocentric view of the universe put the earth, Christianity and the Church at the center of God's creation, the geocentric universe became official Church doctrine.

 

The authority of many secular (non-religious) political leaders (kings, etc.) was legitimized by Church approval through such principles as Divine Right Monarchy and the fact that most kings were crowned by the Pope.  Those rulers whose authority was legitimized by the Church were by definition allied with the Church and were equally threatened by heretics whose views were at odds with those of the Church.  These leaders, therefore, also had a vested interest in perpetuating a geocentric view of the universe.  To the extent that it legitimized the Church's authority over the populace, it legitimized their authority as well.  They could be counted on to attack and punish those whose existence and behavior displeased the Church.  Such political rulers provided thousands of soldiers  to  fight in the various Crusades launched by the Church against its competitors, including the Albigensian Crusade launched against the Cathars of southern France.

 

Thus, any attempt to offer an alternate view of the universe was met with stiff resistance.  Those who presented alternate views of the universe were labeled heretics and punished, frequently with torture or death. The history of Western Europe is filled with campaigns of warfare and persecution against heretics.  Indeed labeling someone a heretic (like labeling someone a Communist in the U.S.) became a convenient way of justifying the Church's punishment  of its enemies and of recruiting secular rulers and the populace to support its political interests.  The Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars of southern France was a good example of this, as was the Inquisition and the many witch burnings that took place (see "Broomsticks and Sabbats" and "The Great Witch Craze" in Marvin Harris' book, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches).

 

For this reason, Copernicus waited until he was on his death bed in 1543 to publish De Revolutionibus, his proposal of a heliocentric universe.  In his manuscript, Copernicus argued that the earth revolved around the sun, not the sun around the earth.  He waited to publish his ideas, in part, for fear of retaliation by the Church, and with good reason.  Galileo, who promoted Copernicus' heliocentric model of the universe after Copernicus' death, was placed under house arrest, brought before the Inquisition and forced under threat of torture to recant his beliefs.  Giordano Bruno, who also suggested that the earth moved and that other worlds in other solar systems might be inhabited, was burned at the stake in 1600.  De Revolutionibus was placed on the Chruch Index of forbidden books in 1616 and wasn't removed until 1835.

 

Because they frequently threaten vested interests --i.e., people's personal world view as well as the interests of established authority-- new scientific findings frequently encounter fierce resistance.  Phillip Franke, a philosopher of science, argued that there are two different factors which determine whether a new idea is accepted or not.  One of those is the technical superiority of the new idea --whether or not it explains the facts better than any existing theory.   But equally important, he argued, is the social impact of the new idea.  Many technically superior ideas have been resisted because they contradict existing social beliefs or values.  Copernicus' heliocentric model of the universe was clearly an example of what Franke meant; it was rejected because it conflicted with prevailing beliefs, even though it provided a technically superior explanation of the motion of the planets.  The history of science (physical, biological and social) is filled with examples of technically superior ideas being rejected on the basis of their social and political implications.

 

Some three centuries after Copernicus published his heliocentric model of the universe, Charles Darwin presented his theory of evolution to the world.  It met with vehement resistance.  Like Copernicus' heliocentric model of the universe, Darwin's theory of evolution threatened institutionalized authority, as well as the religious beliefs of many people.  It contradicted Western anthropocentrism --the Judeo-Christian belief that humans are unique among species on earth, the pinnacle of creation, and made in god's image.  In the U.S., legislation has been passed by nearly two dozen states to prevent the teaching of evolution.  Today, less than one-third of Americans accept evolution, despite the fact that it forms the cornerstone of all serious biological and medical research.  In a similar way, Marxist economic and political theory has been fervidly opposed in the U.S. and has been prohibited from being taught in many public and private schools throughout the country, in essence, because it formed the ideological foundation for the Soviet Union and other communist countries during the Cold War.  Marxist intellectuals have even been prohibited from heading up academic departments at some universities.

 

Each of the above examples of resistance to new ideas illustrates how personal, social, economic and political vested interest blind people to new and more scientifically valid ideas.  Each of the above examples also represents a case study in ethnocentrism.  Ethnocentrism may be defined as

 

The tendency to view the values and behavior of other peoples as invariably inferior and less "natural" or logical than those of one's own social group, and to judge the values and behaviors of other peoples by the standards of one's own social  group.

 

To the extent that various individuals and groups resisted each of the above new ideas because it threatened their parochial world view, they were acting in an ethnocentric way.  Beliefs that they held were never questioned.  In addition, the legitimacy of opposing ideas were not evaluated on the basis of their ability to better explain the facts, but rather in terms of their compatibility with existing beliefs, which they were very likely to contradict.  The legitimacy of the prevailing socially accepted beliefs were never questioned; they were simply assumed and defended.  This rejection of new ideas is similar to the way that people frequently respond when exposed to the beliefs and practices of people whose way of life is different from their own.  The history of our knowledge of the universe over the last four centuries illustrates how silly ethnocentrism can be, not only because it shows how radically we have altered our view of the universe and of our place in it in the last few centuries, but also because it shows how insignificant many of our beliefs and practices are when viewed within the larger scheme of things.

 

Within little more than 400 years, we have gone from viewing humans as being at the center of creation on a planet around which the rest of the universe revolved to being but one among many species that have evolved over several billions of years on one tiny spec of a universe that is so large that it is largely beyond our comprehension.  Significantly, most of the changes in our world view have occurred within the last 100 years.  In the late 1800s, for example, Archbishop Usher, using the genealogies of the Bible, calculated that the world was created in 4004 B.C. (at 9 a.m. on October 13!).  As late as 1900, the leading scientists of the day were projecting that the earth may be as much as 100,000 years old, not the 5 billion years generally accepted today.  In a mere 100 years, our knowledge of how old the earth is has increased 50,000-fold, and the universe is now known to be at least 5 million times older than was believed in Galileo's day!  Moreover, our view of the physical universe has been repeatedly transformed by Newton, Einstein and thousands of other scientists who have developed the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory and other theories in physics to where the universe is a place that most of us can barely conceive.  Similarly, in biology scientists have developed highly quantitative models that explain both biological and behavior aspects of species evolution.  The actual code of life (DNA) has been encoded and used to create new varieties of living organism, both plants and animals.  The eventual creation of life from inanimate chemicals is no longer considered an impossibility.  Again, most of this knowledge explosion has occurred only in the past 100 years, and much of it since World War II.  The DNA code was deciphered in 1954, and the origin of life, which is generally dated at 3.5 billion years ago today was thought to have occurred only about  1.5 billion years ago in 1960.

 

The discoveries of the past century have contributed to a rather humbling view of the place of humankind in the universe and has presented a serious challenge to those who want to believe that humans are at the center of the universe and creation.  Our insignificance in the larger scheme of things can be illustrated in several different ways.  To begin with, we exist on one of the smallest planets in our own solar system.  When we compare the size of the earth to that of the other planets in our solar system, our smallness becomes readily apparent.  Jupiter's diameter is 11 times that of the earth.  When we compare the earth to the sun, our relative size becomes miniscule; the sun's diameter is over 100 times that of the earth.  Based on size alone, it is highly unlikely that we would appear very significant to observers from other solar systems or galaxies, if we even appeared at all.

 

 

 

Diameter in Miles

Earth Diameter = 1

     

Earth

7,927

1.0

Neptune

27,700

3.5

Uranus

29,200

3.7

Saturn

75,100

9.5

Jupiter

88,700

11.2

SUN

864,000

109.0

 

 

 

 

The Relative Size of the Earth

within Our Solar System

 

 

 

 

 

And that's just within our solar system.  If we move outside our solar system and view ourselves within our galaxy (the Milky Way), our insignificance becomes even more apparent.  Our galaxy is so large that distances are generally calculated in light years rather than miles.  Light travels at 186,000 miles per second.  That's a distance equal to about 7.5 times around the earth at the equator.  If you multiply 186,000 miles X 60 second X 60 minutes X 24 hours X 365 days, you will get the approximate distance that light travels in a year, the mileage equivalent of one light year.  It is approximately six trillion miles (6,000,000,000,000).  Since Alpha Centauri is 4.29 light years away, that means that the closest star in our own galaxy --and, thus the nearest possible solar system-- is over 25 trillion miles away.  Clearly, we are unlikely to be visited by anyone from there very soon!  Astronomers estimate that the diameter of our galaxy  is about 100,000 light years, or 600 quadrillion miles!  And, as it turns out, not only are we not at the center of our solar system, we are nowhere near the center of our own galaxy (see picture below).  Current calculations indicate that there are about 100 billion stars (and, therefore, 100 billion solar systems containing planets, some of which might have life) in our galaxy and that we are 27,000 light years (162 trillion miles) from the center.  Indeed, if you take the time that separates us from when Jesus lived and multiply it by 50, you have the approximate time it takes for a beam of light to travel from one end of our galaxy to the other.   Clearly, if someone from another planet decides to visit us, they had better pack a big lunch!

 

 

 

Milky Way

(Red dot represents approximate location of our solar system)

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When we leave our own little corner of the universe and examine the scale of things outside of our galaxy, our anthropocentric and ethnocentric ideas become rather quaint, to say the least.  The Andromeda galaxy, the second closest to our own galaxy and twice its size, is calculated to be 2.9 million light years away (17.4 quintillion miles).  It is unlikely that we have to fear any "Strain" from there, given that the universe has not been around long enough to allow much except light to travel that far.  (Only light and some other forms of energy can travel at the speed of light.  All other things must travel at far lower speeds.).  There are an estimated 10 billion galaxies in addition to Andromeda that can be seen using a light refracting telescope and many more that can be observed using radio telescopes.  Given that each galaxy likely contains between 100-200 billion stars, the known universe likely contains between 1,000-2,000 billion stars.  I wonder how many intelligent creatures living in those trillions of other solar systems also think that they are at the center of creation.

 

But that is not all.  Not only is our solar system a fly speck in the universe, but it is a relatively recent fly speck.  Our sun is what astronomers call a second generation star.  Our solar system is only about 5 billion years old, while the universe is closer to 15 billion years old.  That means that our solar system has only been in existence for the last one-third of the life of the universe.  There was apparently a previous solar system in this region of the galaxy that ended with the death of its sun many billions of years ago.  The remains of that solar system later coalesced into what became our present solar system. (Scientists can determine this, in part, by the high iron content of our sun.) And the star at the center of our Johnny-come-lately solar system is not even a particularly significant one.  Innumerable stars exist in the universe that are thousands of times larger and brighter than our sun.

 

And, of course, humans are the ultimate latecomers.  It is currently estimated that 99% of all the species that have ever lived on earth are now extinct, and most of them came and went long before homo sapiens appeared on the scene.  This means that major epochs have come and gone on the planet before humans were around.  We were not here from the beginning directing the show.  Rather, we missed most of the performance!  In some ways, we are an evolutionary after thought.  Had things gone slightly different in the past, we may never have even evolved.  Our insignificance in the history and evolution of the world around us is clearly illustrated by viewing us in relation to the rest of the universe.

 

 

 

Time-Line

1 million years = 1 mile

 

Significant Event

Distance Back through Time

(in miles)

 

 

Origin of the Universe . . .

15,000

Origin of Our Solar System . . .

5,000

Origin of Life . . .

3,500

Origin of Fishes . . .

500

Origin of Reptiles . . .

320

Origin of Dinosaurs . . .

230

Origin of Mammals

63

Origin of Primates

60

Origin of Genus Homo (Human)

2

Origin of Homo Sapiens

.1

The founding of the Kingdom of Israel

.003

Birth of Christ

.002

U.S. Declaration of Independence

.0002

 

 

 

Life on earth is 35,000 times older than Home Sapiens, and the universe as a whole has been around 150,000 times longer than our species.  If we view the history of the universe in terms of a trip from some distant land, say Lagos, Nigeria in West Africa, to the flagpole on the Muhlenberg campus, where leaving  Lagos represents the beginning of the universe and arriving at the flagpole represents the present, we would have to travel all the way across the Sahara Desert and the entire continent of Africa, through Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, through India and completely across China and Japan and two-thirds of the way across the Pacific Ocean to Honolulu, Hawaii before our solar system came into being.   The earliest forms of life would appear only as we approached the western coast of North America, and complex forms of life, such as fishes, would appear only after we had traveled across most of the United States and arrived in Indianapolis, Indiana.  We would then have to reach Pittsburgh, PA before the Age of Dinosaurs began and pass through Harrisburg, PA before we would see the first primates.   We wouldn't see any humans until we drove past the Trivet Diner on Tilghman St. and would have to arrive at the edge of the Muhlenberg campus before our own species (Homo sapiens) appeared.  The founding of the Kingdom of Israel (by the ancient Israelites who gave us the Bible) would not have occurred until we crossed much of the campus and arrived on the grassy area in front of Academic Row.  The birth of Christ (who many believe was the son of the Jewish god which the Bible claims created the entire universe) would occur only 10 feet (4 steps) from the flagpole, while the Declaration of Independence, which led to origin of the United States, would have been signed within one foot of the flagpole, less than the length of an average man's shoe.

 

When placed in this perspective, it is rather fascinating that so many people have identified so closely with the institutions that have resulted from these last three events and that some people have even been willing to sacrifice their lives to promote and defend those institutions --events which can hardly be considered significant from a universal perspective.  (Humans frequently remind me of a colony of ants.)  It is also rather interesting to see so many people place so much importance on judging other people who are different from themselves, whether it is because other people practice a different way of living, believe in a different religion, come from a different neighborhood or social class, or just look different or wear different clothes.

 

Whenever I think of all this, I am reminded of the words from a song on National Lampoon's first album:

 

 

You are a fluke of the universe.  You have no right to be here.  The universe is laughing behind your back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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