One of the ideological underpinnings of the current world-view is the idea that, considering the vast scale of the universe, what happens on Planet Earth cannot really amount to much. For thousands of years, we have been told, people thought that the Earth was at the center of things. But then science came along and told a different story about how insignificant the Earth was. If Earth was pretty insignificant, then by extension human beings are too.
These teachings were considered a great scientific advance over all previous world-views, and they still form the staple of the modern intellectual diet. They happened to coincide with other important developments in science, chiefly the discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels. The bonanza of cheap energy gave a great impetus to a view of economic life that was also unfolding during this period. It was a view that did not have much in common with classical or ancient notions about stewardship or husbandry. Cheap energy gave an impulse of perpetual growth to economic activity, whereas old notions about stewardship had to do with maintenance and preservation. This shift of emphasis can be seen in even the word, “stewardship,” which has come to mean fund-raising (getting money, implying growth through lateral extension) rather than the growth through inner deepening of roots and the stabilization of existing structure.
This combination of ideas – the “Principle of Mediocrity” which teaches the insignificance of the Earth – and its implications leading to a trivialization of human life, has proved to be very destructive in its economic applications. The economy has indeed become something like a machine which trivializes human destiny in order to turn people into consumers.
If Joseph George Caldwell is right –“preserving biodiversity is the only game in town” (1) -- then nothing else much matters than preserving the biosphere. But how is this to be done? I believe that an important step in this direction is the Rare Earth Hypothesis.
Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee argue the Rare Earth Hypothesis in their book, Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe ( Copernicus Books, 2000.) Peter Ward is a professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, and Donald Brownlee is a professor of astronomy, also at the University of Washington. Ward and Brownlee are on the cutting edge of a new discipline called astrobiology, in which several disciplines converge -- biology, paleontology, oceanography, microbiology, geology, genetics, and astronomy, among others. If life means integration, astrobiology is a sign that a more integrated approach to knowledge is the first step towards a true science of life.
It is fitting that the Copernicus imprint, a division of Springer-Verlag, published this signal work which challenges the Copernican view. Ever since Copernicus put forth his sun-centered hypothesis, in 1514, the place of Earth in the cosmos has been, as the authors note, “periodically trivialized.” It is this trivialization which is known as the “Principle of Mediocrity” and which has formed an important element in our intellectual atmosphere for nearly five hundred years. The recitation goes something like this: Earth is a middling planet that circles an ordinary star in an ordinary galaxy, and is among many untold millions of objects in the universe. Following up on this, in 1974 Carl Sagan advanced the notion that a million civilizations might exist in the Milky Way galaxy alone. This notion was based upon calculations he had done with the astronomer Frank Drake, in which a formula was created (called the Drake Equation) based on estimates of the number of planets in the galaxy, the percentage of those that might harbor life, and the percentage of that percentage that could support advanced civilization.
Rare Earth is a book that does more than challenge the view of Earth’s insignificance in the galaxy. It is fundamentally a challenge to the type of abstract thinking that underlies the Drake Equation. It is not that methodologies of statistics, percentages, numbers, quantities, are not useful. But their usefulness only serves in relation to concrete history, the data of real experience. In real experience, things that happen unfold in a temporal sequence, and this holds true for geological as well as human development. Statistical generality needs to be counterbalanced by the sense for temporal uniqueness. The only place where life is known to exist is this planet. Isn’t it time for science to acknowledge that fact? The signal achievement of Rare Earth is, in my view, this acknowledgement of concrete, geological and historical reality – this appreciation for the unique events brought forth in time.
To turn from the abstract, universal, general, and statistical to the unique, concrete, unrepeatable and individual would in itself represent a major shift in the way that scientific thinking has historically unfolded. The philosopher Ortega y Gasset once remarked that “The history of human thinking may be regarded as a long series of observations made to discover what latent possibilities the world offers for the construction of machines.” The abstract theorizing tendency of the human mind has culminated in our own day with the proliferation of machinery powered by fossil fuels. We are now waking up to the fact that these hydrocarbon resources have a finite margin. Time brought forth the fossil fuels, and the Hubbert curve also attests to the temporal uniqueness of this event. We are beginning to realize that access to the fuel to run our machines is not forever guaranteed.
But if human thinking has sponsored a machine tendency, so to speak, this sponsorship is beginning to show its limitations. Machines and organisms are not the same thing. As the biologist Richard Lewontin pointed out, dependence upon initial conditions is one of the distinctions between a living organism and a machine. “The characteristics of a living object is that it reacts to external stimuli rather than being passively propelled by them…An organism’s life consists of constant mid-course corrections.”
The mid-course correction we are now confronted with is to develop a stewardship of thinking -- that is, to develop a different way to think about thinking. This stewardship model will necessitate moving beyond the abstract tendency which is such a prominent feature of Western-style philosophy. This tendency toward abstraction has been noted by many thinkers (2) but I know of none who have connected the particular features of abstraction and trivialization to the Principle of Mediocrity itself. Understanding Ward and Brownlee’s thesis would go a long way in connecting these dots and providing a real basis for an ethic of stewardship. It means a revolution in metaphysics – but interestingly, and perhaps ironically, in the Modern Age a true metaphysics must be based, not upon categories of philosophical thinking, but upon the physical facts of earth existence.
First of all, as Ward and Brownlee tell it in Rare Earth, our star is not an ordinary star at all. Our sun is far from typical: 95% of all the stars in the universe are less massive than our sun. Our sun, and our solar system, are also unusual in their high metal content. Our Earth just happens to be a suitable distance from the Sun so that life could evolve. Thanks in large part to the presence of Jupiter (not too close and not to far) our planet has a fairly low comet/asteroid impact rate – Jupiter, it seems, helps to sweep out some of the cosmic garbage that might otherwise be headed our way. Thanks to the Moon, another cosmic body not too far and not too close, and whose size is also highly unusual compared to the moons of others, the tilt of our planet has been stabilized. The temperature of the planet has enjoyed a relative stability over long periods. We have a stable orbit, tides, plate tectonics, continental drift, linear mountain chains, water in a liquid state, enough oxygen to enable animal life. And to talk about these things is not even to mention the “Snowball earth” events (planetary glaciations) that seemed to precede each major appearance of life – that of the Eukaryotes (circa 2.5 billion years ago) and the so-called “Cambrian explosion” of ~550 million years ago.
These are just the main features of the history of our Earth which Ward and Brownlee do such a good job of describing. Their thesis, succinctly stated, is that primitive or microbial life may be common in the universe, but the same cannot be said for animal life. : “The formation and evolution of the physical Earth . . . required an intricate set of nearly irreproducible circumstances,” in particular, where higher animal and human life are concerned.
In reading this book, the daring thought arises that maybe what is happening on Earth is the only place where it – where anything – is happening. Maybe our human task is develop historical consciousness for the Earth itself. To accept that this Earth is the unique habitat of life is the essential first step in gaining a new appreciation as well for human life.
A deeper appreciation for human life is a necessity for an ethic of stewardship. The sense for human destiny opposes the trivialization of man, a trivialization that feeds the dogma of consumption, consumption, and consumption. For trivialization – arrogance – and obliviousness -- all go together. It is not just hydrocarbon energy that feeds the economic machine. It is the “energies” of philosophy, of one’s world-view, that comprise the realities of the soul. We need to attend to these “philosophical energies” to develop a stewardship ethic that will maintain our planet as the home of life in the universe.
(1) “See Joseph Caldwell, “Preserving Biodiversity; The Only Game in Town,” from Miscellany 2 on his website www.foundationwebsite.org. He writes: “It is a shocking commentary on the human species – supposedly intelligent – that it is in the process of destroying the very biosphere on which it is totally dependent for its existence. Fermenting yeast in a vat of beer do a similar thing – reproduce to the limit – until they suffocate in their own waste.”
(2) A few quick examples: Jeremy Rifkin commented that capitalist economies are steeped in Newtonian mechanics and have never come to grips with the laws of thermodynamics. Frederick Soddy’s 1912 book, Matter and Energy, stated that the laws of the relation between matter and energy are of prime importance in all human experience and control, in the last resort, the rise and fall of political systems. Jay Hanson, creator of the website, www.dieoff.com, wrestled with the problem of the abstract nature of modern economic thinking. See my essay, “Concerning Jay Hanson and dieoff.com,” for a fuller treatment of the positives and negatives of Jay’s conclusions. (mysite.verizon.net/vze495hz/id24.html)