When Galileo challenged the contemporary cosmology that the universe revolved around the world by promoting the Copernican concept of heliocentrism, he wasn’t just trying to disprove the accepted science of the day; he was exposing it for what it was – a philosophically and politically motivated worldview that frivolously placed humankind at the centerpiece of existence. While many people use Galileo’s story as an example of the latent triumph of science over religion, to me it represents another, yet related trend which was just as momentous: the breaking down of the anthropocentric ideology that had dominated the collective human psyche since ancient times.
Anthropocentrism is the belief in the primacy of the human race; that somehow, we humans occupy a significant and important – perhaps even the most important – existence in the universe. Whole religions and mythologies, especially from the West, have been constructed around anthropocentric principles. Theism – whether involving the existence of one God or multiple gods – goes hand in hand with the idea of anthropocentrism because it implies a symbiotic relationship between man and God. Because we humans are the only known intelligent beings in the cosmos, we must have been chosen by a deity to take the responsibility of being moral agents. In this sense, religion may just be a convenient conceptual framework that humans developed to reinforce their belief in their own supremacy in the universe.
The Perks of Feeling Important
Of course, it was extremely convenient to believe in these mythologies. From our vantage point in the universe, it seemed like the stars and planets revolved around us. It also seemed like everything, ourselves included, was designed as nature seemed too aesthetically perfect to have come about randomly; and as we humans were the most intelligent, most complex forms of life, we must have been designed that way as well. Animals seemed to exist for our own benefit too. But this wasn’t because they necessarily did; it was just that we had learned to condition animals to behave in certain ways so as to benefit us, through animal husbandry. Without consciously understanding this process, it would have seemed logical that they existed for us to exploit.
And this is the point of anthropocentric thinking – that it was, and still remains today, beneficial for humans to consider themselves superior to everything else. As we became the dominant species here on Earth, we began to think that it was somehow our right to be in that position; we were entitled to it, whether it was God-given or not. All our cosmologies and worldviews have simply worked to justify and validate those prejudices. Or, perhaps, it was this very way of thinking that allowed us to become dominant in the first place. Through believing in our primacy as a species, we gained the confidence to accomplish amazing feats – a placebo of sorts, where form followed function.
There’s a philosophical basis behind anthropocentric thinking as well. We yearn for meaning in everything we do – we need rhyme and reason to pervade our understanding of everything that exists. The quest for meaning, the search for significance, has been partaken in by all cultures, from all periods in history, making it a common part of the human condition to actively seek it out. We have been so awe-struck by our own biological prowess that it seemed to follow on logically that we had to be in some way special. And indeed it served us well to feel that our existence were meaningful; it gave us solace and consolation to survive through our lonely existence as the only race of intelligent species*, and a reason to lead meaningful lives. All the beauty which we created, and everything we came to learn, arose from our desire to fulfill the grandiose expectations of ourselves that we maintained through our anthropocentric worldviews.
Back Down to Earth
Scientific inquiry has been a humbling force for the human race. It has illuminated areas that were otherwise filled with superstition and conjecture. More importantly, it has taken man down from his self-assumed high chair in the universe. Through major scientific breakthroughs, in particular the theories of evolution and relativity, we learned that we were not designed spontaneously by a Creator but fashioned out of the forces of nature, and that our experience here on Earth is distinctly unique to us, not ubiquitously applicable to every corner of the cosmos – as would be required for anyone trying to prove that we were the epitome of existence. Other insights generated by science have placed a bit of perspective on the enormity of the ever-expanding cosmos, and the possibility that our own universe may not even be exclusive at all.
Yet science has still offered up other questions that provide us with some food for thought as regards our existence. The more we learn, the more we discover that the conditions on Earth, and perhaps even the universe in general, are so accommodating for life that it still seems to some as though it were all “fine-tuned”. The “anthropic principle” has put a scientific spin on anthropocentric thinking. We are now searching for similar planets sitting in the “Goldilocks” zone around a given star (where the conditions for life are just right) for other forms of life. People won’t give up on the thought that we aren’t alone in this universe; but if we turn out to be alone… what does that say about our place in the cosmos?
But ultimately, we no longer rate ourselves as superior organisms. We now recognise that humans were just the species that made the right adaptations at the right place at the right time in the history of planet Earth. Yet people continue to behave as though they had a universal mandate to do whatever they pleased. People still wreck havoc on the ecology of the Earth, and on other organisms, because these things are deemed inferior to our needs. And, when it’s no longer convenient to believe in the significance of human actions – when it means we need to tone back our behaviour – we turn a blind eye and say we aren’t so significant after all. Nature is still bigger than us, people say. No matter what we do, nature will find a way to nullify our impact.
Well, after millennia of thinking that we were cosmically important, we’ve created a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are now affect the most significant influence on the world around us, and unless we don’t change our actions now, this will lead to our downfall. Nature no longer owns the Earth; we do. And just like when empires become too big for their own good and collapse, we will overstretch our capacity to sustain our continued growth. We will suffer the consequences of altering the delicate balance of the conditions that have sustained the existence of life on Earth if we continue to act as though we are entitled to exploit as much of nature as we so please.
It’s time to realise that we are in fact significant actors here on Earth, but we must use this position to take care of the planet – and not to exploit it for short-term gains.