The Importance Of Being Human : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture Since Copernicus, science has told us that we are irrelevant in the big scheme of things. It's time we rethink this position. Modern science is telling us something quite different. We matter much more than we believe we do.
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The Importance Of Being Human

"We must preserve life at all costs, be the guardians of this world." NASA hide caption

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"We must preserve life at all costs, be the guardians of this world."


It's easy to bash humans. We are making a mess of this world. We kill each other. We are incapable of respecting differing points of view. We are selfish, destructive, parasitic. I'm sure you could add a few derisive comments of your own here. I remember, as a teenager, how infuriated I became when I learned about holy wars, about how people can actually justify killing others based on faith. Not that other wars are any better. But what happened, I wondered, to the most basic of notions, shared by all major religions, that life is sacred?

Some of the blame must also be shared with science. I don't mean in terms of the technologies of destruction that we invent, but in the way we relate to the world due to our scientific view of reality. We are in serious need of a deep revision.

Central to the scientific description of the world, which has served us extremely well for centuries, is the notion that the more we learn about the universe the less important we become. Sometimes, this is called the Copernican Principle: just as Copernicus moved the Earth from the center of the cosmos, as science progresses we find that our location and role in the grand scheme of things becomes less and less important. Given that the same laws of physics and chemistry apply across the cosmos, we know that there are other suns out there, surrounded by other planets. Our solar system is one among trillions of others. Not very important. When you include modern cosmology, things get even worse.

In 1924 the American astronomer Edwin Hubble showed that the Milky Way, our home galaxy, is one among billions of others. Then, in 1929, he showed that the Universe is expanding and that no one point in the cosmos is more important than any other. During the 1990s, a radical new idea was put forward, that our Universe is not all that there is but simply one out of a myriad (infinite number?) of universes, all bubbling forth from a timeless realm called the multiverse. We don't know if the multiverse is for real or not--and we may never know--but many modern cosmological theories support the idea. Are we really that disposable?

In the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, which interviews several astronauts from the Apollo program (I highly recommend it), we learn that only 24 men have actually seen the globe of the Earth in its entirety. All members from this select group that also participate in the documentary are unanimous in stating how fragile and small the Earth looks out there, cruising the infinite blackness of space. The Pale Blue Dot, as Carl Sagan called it. (This is a link to Sagan's narration of his beautiful text.)

The more we learn about the Universe the more we also learn something that counters the Copernican Principle: yes, we don't occupy the center of all things, and yes, our galaxy is one among hundreds of billions. However, as we peer into our cosmic neighbors, the planets of the solar system and their moons, we see stark environments, dead and prohibitive. Earth stands out as an oasis, rare and precious. Couple this to what we have learned of how life developed here over the past 3.5 billion years and we come to what I consider a transformative revelation: even if we find life elsewhere in the cosmos, chances are this alien life will be simple, made of unicellular organisms. (I will leave weird notions of life as we don't know it for another time.) The jumps from single-celled to multi-cellular organisms and then to highly functioning, intelligent beings are immensely unlikely, depending on a series of random, unrepeatable accidents. Even if complex life exists elsewhere in the cosmos, and we can't say that it doesn't, it is so far removed from us that for all practical purposes we are alone. And if we are alone and can think, we are rare and precious. And if we are rare and precious, we have a new directive that goes beyond the destructiveness that has ruled human history for millennia. We must preserve life at all costs, be the guardians of this world. To counter the Copernican Principle, we should develop a "humancentrism": we alone have the power to ruin or to save this precious world we live in. And I don't mean this in some kind of naive, la-la way. I mean it quite literally. If we don't mend our ways, we will only have ourselves to blame. Judging from the past few thousands of years, no one, alien intelligence or God, will come to our rescue. It's really up to us.