On the Status of Man in the Universe. From Galileo to Darwin, and the Church.

About three years ago I encountered a book that told the story of Charles Darwin and his work; On the Origin of Species, from a unique perspective. While prior to this encounter, I’d acquainted myself with the famous case of the Roman Catholic Church; Galileo; and the Center of the Universe.

It took me a while to connect the dots. Darwin and Galileo both didn’t see anything too special in Man which could place him at a higher status than that of other creatures, or even to be the most important matter in the universe. But this is not entirely the reasons for their various works. More reasonable would it seem, to conclude that they both had the same idea of Man’s place in the universe in a corner, at the back of their minds.

the Ptolemaic System, otherwise known as the Geocentric Model of the Universe.

Long before Darwin started his work in the 19th century, the church and Galileo had already had their tussle about the place of the earth in the universe. Prior to the discovery of the Telescope, the church had easily adopted the geocentric model that was promulgated by Ptolemy and the ancient Greek astronomers, and later polished by Aristotle. (One might also be tempted to say that the Church then had great respect for Aristotle and his philosophical/scientific works, to be easily attracted to adopting his views as a dogma), but this model in fact, almost mirrors the belief of the church. This model proposed that the earth is at the center of the universe, and depicted it as being stationary with the other planets, moon, and sun moving around it in small, circular orbits. Thus, as much as it put the earth at a very prime position, it also invariably puts Man at the center of the universe, while according him the utmost importance of everything existing beneath the stars. This of course quite supports the passage from the Bible’s book of Genesis that said;

He created them male and female, blessed them, and said; have many children, so that your descendants will live all over the earth and have dominion over it.

This model would be held accurate for many centuries mainly because of the lack of advanced means of observing the physical world and the heavens, and partly because the church had strongly endorsed it. Therefore, it was not until Nicolaus Copernicus arose in the early 1500s and began his work; On the Revolution of Celestial Spheres- which would give birth to the Copernican (Heliocentric) model that the geocentric model of the universe would cease to be adopted in the following years to come. So that, when Galileo, after developing the first telescope, and observing the universe in a better way summoned courage to speak against the widely accepted Ptolemaic system, the church felt that its doctrine on the status of man in the universe was been gravely threatened and had him arrested for Heresy. Galileo was forced to stand trial for his belief in Copernicanism (the idea that Earth moves around the Sun). In the aftermath, the Church forced Galileo to publicly denounce Copernicanism and spend the rest of his life under house arrest.

This painting from the 19th century depicts Italian scientist Galileo at the Vatican in Rome, appearing before the Inquisition in the 17th century.

The true and accurate system however need not stay hidden for long, as the heliocentric model of the universe was soon adopted and the church this time had to recant.

As time went on, the church adjusted to the discoveries and breakthroughs brought about by science. All the while preserving the previously wounded doctrine of Man’s important status in the universe. This comfort was going to be terribly threatened again in the coming years as the British naturalist, Charles Darwin prepares to come into the limelight. When he published his book; On the Origin of Species in 1859, Darwin was going to deal a heavy blow and push the church right in through another trauma. This time, one that would last for as long as science did, and endure so long as there are people who refuse to accept the creationism theory of the origin of life. The idea of Evolution proved a very potent weapon for the early scientists against the church and its doctrines to fight with, mainly because it would become an ideology that would be passed down to generations just as creationism was and had been passed down from its onset. The issue also being that Ideas hardly die; especially the ones that cannot be proven by experiments in the short run, but seem legit to the ears. Although Darwin carefully sidestepped the issue of human evolution throughout his book, focusing instead on competition and adaptation in lower animals and plants, the logical – and intensely controversial – extension of his theory was that humans, too, evolved through the ages. And for people who accepted the biblical view of creation, the idea that human beings shared common roots with lower animals was tremendously shocking. Even as Darwin’s theory of evolution later faced a lot of scientific and religious debates (the latter which it still does till today), most scientists still clung to it (even rendering modifications) as it opposed creationism. While some supported the idea that life came about fully from evolution of chance events, others believe evolution to be truly happening or have happened only on a micro scale (Microevolution), and the church now throwing some weights behind microevolution, strongly opposes Macroevolution; which was a major part of Darwin’s theory.

An open page in Darwin’s book; On the Origin of Species.

A careful examination of the works of Darwin and Galileo would or rather might now lead you to the same conclusion it lead me- that they both possibly didn’t share the overrated status and reverence given to man by the church; this thought might have been influenced by their careful examination of the activities of man in the society and towards his environment (I’m not making a factual statement here). [Eventually, there are other writers who might have also possibly shared my conclusion].

Thus I end my observations and writing here, without criticizing either of the three pillars of which this work was made. You are welcome to make other reasonable deductions of your own from my work (now a source), and please remember to reference my efforts properly. Thank You for reading and following! – Pascal Chisom Okechukwu

Important Notes:

  • The bible verse quoted in the third justified paragraph came from Genesis 1: 27-28.
  • The keyword Church, as used throughout the text stands for the one and only Roman Catholic Church, except for the usage relating to its support of Microevolution, which is shared by other religious institutions other than the Roman Catholic Church.
  • The Church in Britain also likely invited Darwin’s work for a case against the creationism view, under the authority of her majesty, the then ruling queen. (But that was after Darwin’s death).
  • The passage in bold, blue color was inspired by a text from Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009. On a similar work relating to Darwin’s theory of evolution.


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