Theories of the Universe: How Did We Get Here?
How Did We Get Here?
I wanted to spend some time discussing ideas about the nature of truth because so much of what we believe about the world, the universe, cosmology, and God is based on what we consider to be true. At the end of the nineteenth century, many scientists believed that all that could be known about cosmology was indeed known, and any anomalies would soon be resolved. Little did they know what Einstein and the rest of twentieth-century physics had in store for them.
What was to happen to nineteenth-century Newtonian cosmology had already occurred to some degree with the accepted story of creation. While science continued in the twentieth century to expand upon its theories, religious dogmatism fought any change to its interpretation of the truth. What was it that threatened the long-held belief of creation?
A common misconception in evolution theory is the basis for the process known as natural selection. Many philosophers and scientists have interpreted it to mean that the survival of a species is based on those most fit, or it's “the strong that survive.” In reality this is far from the truth. Survival is based on adaptability to change and has nothing to do with the strong overcoming the weak. As your environment changes, it all has to do with how well you can adapt to the changing conditions. And this idea can be applied to many areas of our lives, too.
You Have Been Selected
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published his On the Origin of Species in 1859 and set forth his theory that animals evolved through variation and natural selection to those most fit to survive in particular environments. Here's a brief summary of some of its main ideas.
- Biological organisms and species do not have a fixed, static existence but exist in permanent states of flux and change.
- All life, from a biological point of view, takes the form of a struggle to exist, and to exist to produce the greatest number of offspring
- This struggle for existence removes those organisms less well adapted to any particular ecological system and allows those better adapted to flourish. This is the process called natural selection.
- Natural selection, development, and evolution require enormously long periods of time—so long that the everyday experience of human beings provides them with no ability to interpret these histories.
- The genetic variations that produce increased survivability are random and not caused by God or by the organism's own striving for perfection.
The Ladder of Creation
While Darwin's theory is far from being complete, and some scientists would be the first to admit that, it does stimulate thinking and breeds new theories. That is its strength. Its weakness, besides being incomplete, is that it, like most of science, supplies no purposeful action for the underlying phenomena it seeks to explain. Isn't that as important of a question to ask as the questioning of religious dogma?
The effect of these points was to do the same thing that the Copernican revolution did, and that was to move humanity away from the center of creation and imply that it could hardly be its crowning glory. Natural selection, which apparently leaves no place for God in the world, has proved the most difficult part of the theory for some to accept. What other Biblical traditions does it question? Well here's a few that pop out:
- By emphasizing that species changed, evolutionary theories apparently destroyed ancient notions of the Great Chain of Being, in which all living organisms had their proper place in a fixed, immutable order.
- By emphasizing that species changed over time, the theory called into question the literal truth of the Bible, which gave a much shorter span of time from the creation to the present.
- The displacement of humanity from the center of creation along with our recent arrival in geological time brought our importance to a questionable level.
- Natural selection, with its notions of randomness and apparently wasteful cruelty of the selection process, argued against any form of divine morality.
The Great Chain of Being or the Ladder of Creation has been a long-standing belief that explains the natural order of the world in a hierarchical scale. It's based on the Book of Genesis account of creation in which God created all of the various species of plants and animals fully formed and distinct. It's a belief system that also developed out of the Aristotelian classifications of the flora and fauna of earth. You could even call it a creation theory that links all forms of life from the lowest to the highest, and, of course, the highest being man. Hmm … any sense of self-importance there?
If this wasn't enough to get the pot boiling, in 1871 Darwin published Descent of Man. This work more than any other brought into question humanity's creation because the main thesis of the theory was that in our long development we had originally evolved from primates (you know, gorillas, chimpanzees, apes). Here's a brief excerpt from it. Original sources can't be beat.
The main conclusion here arrived at, and now held by many naturalists who are well competent to form a sound judgment, is that man is descended from some less highly organized form. The grounds upon which this conclusion rests will never be shaken, for the close similarity between man and the lower animals in embryonic development, as well as in innumerable points of structure and constitution, both high and of trifling importance, the rudiments which he retains, and the abnormal revisions to which he is occasionally liable, are facts which cannot be disputed. They have long been known, but until recently they told us nothing with respect to the origin of man. Now when viewed in the light of the whole organic world their meaning is unmistakable. The great principle of evolution stands up clear and firm, when these groups of facts are considered in connection with others, such as mutual affinities of the members of the same group, their geographical distribution in past and present times, and their geological succession. It is incredible that all of these facts should speak falsely. He who is not content to look, like a savage, at the phenomena of nature as disconnected, cannot any longer believe that man is a work of separate act of creation.
There you have it, the grounds for the great debate that still rages in our society today. If you didn't before, I think you now have a general idea of early evolution theory. Let's look at the other side of the coin and see what creationism has to say.
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Theories of the Universe © 2001 by Gary F. Moring. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.