A Tabular History of Scientific Ideas That Challenged Fundamental Notions of the World

(An addendum to the GEOL 1122 reading on "What is, and isn't, Science")

Six Scientific Ideas Challenging Fundamental Notions of the World
. .     A     B     C     D     E     F
. . Shape of Earth Relative Position of Earth Age of earth Origin of human (and other) species Change in Configuration of Continents and Oceans Origin of Universe
1 Traditional (pre-scientific) View: Flat** Center of Universe; Sun orbits earth ~6,000 years Divine creation None: Static Geography Divine creation
2 Scientific View: Roughly spherical Earth orbits sun
(and sun occupies no special position in universe)
4.6 billion years Evolution from earlier life Movement of continents in tectonic plates; generation & destruction of sea floor Initial explosion of matter ("Big Bang")
3 Most basic evidence for scientific view: Disappearance of receding objects; circumnavigation of planet (Magellan); Apollo mission photos Astonomical observations via telescopes Rates of formation of geologic features; Radiometric dating of rocks (in 20th century) Fossil record; structural simlarities between humans and other primates; DNA and other biochemical studies. Geologic trends in continents; age of sea floor; earthquakes and volcanoes Red shift in spectra of light from distant galaxies
4 First major proponents of scientific view: Ancient Greeks Copernicus (~1540);
Galileo (~1630)
Lyell (1840-70s)
Darwin, Wallace, Huxley (mid-late 1800s) Wegner, Wilson, Hess (Early-mid 1900s) Alexander Friedmann; Edwin Hubble (Early-mid 1900s)
5 Implication of scientific view for humans: Not much Not inhabitants of center of universe, and thus not necessarily central to the interest of a divine being Only recent inhabitants of a very old planet; any divine being was content with human-less earth for billions of years Genealogically descended from non-human "lesser" species; not special not much Earth is young in context of entire universe: universe existed without earth and humans for billions of years
6 Conservative* response to scientific view: Not much; a very few still honestly objected in 20th century Copernicus's book titled "hypothetical"; Galileo imprisoned by Vatican and forced to recant Creationism (but not the principal focus of creationism) 19th-century attack by Bishop Wilberforce et al.; focus of 20th- and 21st-century creationism Virtually none Creationism (but not the principal focus of creationism)
7 View of people on the street today: Round earth (scientific view) Earth orbits sun (scientific view) for most people Some scientific;
some conservative
Some scientific & some conservative, with heated debate; laws enacted to ensure teaching of conservative view Don't care Some scientific;
some conservative
. . Shape of Earth Relative Position of Earth Age of earth Origin of human (and other) species Change of Continents and Oceans Origin of Universe
. .     A     B     C     D     E     F
*Note that "conservative" is used here to denote people resistant to change with regard to these ideas, and it is not intended to have a political connotation. "Traditionalist" could be probably be substituted for "conservative".
** European traditional views, partly based on the Bible, involved a flat Earth. Some non-European traditions assumed a round Earth.

From the above, some interesting questions, and perhaps their answers, emerge:

1) Why did conservatives accept the idea of a heliocentric solar system (Column B) but refuse to accept other scientific ideas? (Bear in mind that the Church, in its indictment of Galileo, explicitly declared that Galileo's "proposition that the sun is in the centre of the world and immovable from its place is absurd . . . because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scripture".)

2) Many conservatives cite Darwin's acceptance of religious ideas on his deathbed as evidence against evolution and natural selection. Why isn't Galileo's recantation of his arguments for a heliocentric solar system (Cell 6B) likewise cited as evidence against the earth orbiting the sun?

3) Why don't conservatives care about plate tectonics' implications for major changes in geography (Cell 6E)? Possible answer: because plate tectonics does not challenge the special position of humanity in conservative thinking (Cell 5E).

4) The evidence for biological evolution (Cell 3D) is the most easily observed and tangible of the above lines of evidence for these scientific concepts (Row 3). Why is biological evolution nonetheless the idea most hostily attacked by conservatives? Possible answer: because it most directly undermines a special place for humans (Cell 5C).

5) (combining questions 1 and 4) Why do many modern people accept the scientific idea that the earth orbits the sun, despite seeming to see the sun go around the earth each day, but they reject the scientific idea of biological evolution?

Closing Observation:

    Row 5 of this table suggests that science hasn't been kind to humanity's notion of itself. Science has consistently been the bearer of bad news: that humans don't live on an earth at the center of the universe and thus at the focus of divine attention; that the world existed long before humans, so that any deity was seemingly quite content with a human-less world for eons; and that humans weren't created in the image of a deity but evolved from a succession of animals whose form and lifestyle was not suggestive of divinity.

    Behavioral science has been no more kind. Humans have defined themselves as tool-using animals or as animals with language, to set themselves off from "lower" animals. Behavioral science has undercut such claims by showing that some non-human animals use tools and that many non-human animals, from bees to chimps, have words and/or something like language. Even the ethically dubious definition of humans as creatures that utilize other animals is defied by ants that herd aphids. The only remaining behavorial definition would be that humans are the only animals that enslave each other.

    These affronts to human pride aren't the goal of science, but they result from the basic character of science. If the arts are driven to create beauty and express human qualities, the sciences have no such mission. Scientific ideas aren't, or at least shouldn't be, evaluated on the basis of whether they are reassuring to humanity. One result may be that many people dislike science because it has been the bearer of bad (or at least not complimentary) news. However, it hardly makes sense to shoot the messenger.

If the above seems upsetting, depressing, or at least full of implications for humanity, you may be interested in one more page on Science and its Societal Implications. However, that page is NOT part of the reading assignment for GEOL 1122.

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Back to the GEOL 1122 main page.