This week, and in this year, we should be celebrating the most commanding ideas in human thought. Four hundred years ago, in 1609, Galileo first peered through his telescope and confirmed that we were not at the center of anything, certainly not our solar system. Rather, our Earth was one of many planets that orbited the sun in an immense universe.
Two hundred years later, on Feb. 12, 1809, Charles Darwin was born in England, and fifty years later, in 1859, published “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.” Darwin, like Galileo, showed us that we were not at the center of anything, certainly not a special creation separate from the rest of nature. Rather, the life of the planet, past and present, shared a common descent through time. We were all kin. Humans too were not a breed apart. Our origins were as completely genetic and geologic as every other animal, plant and microbe on the planet, an evolutionary history that we now know extends back more then 3.5 billion years.
Abraham Lincoln was born on the same day and year as Darwin, Feb. 12, 1809. Fifty-three years later, in 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, he emancipated the slaves and, ultimately, all African-Americans. Like Galileo and Darwin, Lincoln told us that we, the white enslavers, were not at the center of anything, certainly not the human species.
It is humbling to have learned that we are not at the center of the bodies in the sky, or life on earth, or the diversity of people. And it is also liberating. Galileo, Darwin and Lincoln taught us the cardinal importance of the freedom to think, particularly, the freedom to think risky, uncomfortable thoughts, ones that threatened the received dogmas and doctrines of their time.
It seems then that we should be applauding the decision by the Vatican in 2009 finally to rehabilitate Galileo. Four hundred years ago, during the Inquisition, the Church vilified him as dangerous to the faith, tried him as a heretic, forced him to recant and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Church dogma at the time, based on its scripture, had Earth at the center of the universe.
Hold your applause. The Vatican’s resurrection of Galileo-the-scientist comes with sanctimonious strings. Galileo and his findings will be endorsed by the Vatican only because he was an astronomer who “lovingly cultivated his faith and his profound religious convictions.” Pope Benedict XVI’s stated reason for forgiving Galileo is that he helped the faithful “contemplate with gratitude the Lord’s works.”
At best, this faith-based rehabilitation of Galileo by the Vatican is mealy mouthed. At worst, it is hypocritical. Would Galileo’s discovery of the structure of the solar system be any less authentic or powerful had he not been a man of faith? Can the Vatican bring itself to honor Galileo’s freedom to think uncomfortable ideas that challenged contemporary faith?
Which brings us to Darwin. Will the Vatican wait another 200 years before it acknowledges his simple yet most powerful idea that explains the life of the planet— evolution by natural selection? Will Darwin too have to pass the test of faith to have his science validated by the church? If so, the wait will be much longer than 200 years, because Darwin lost his faith later in life.
Galileo, Darwin and other thinkers explained the nature, origin and evolution of the universe, the earth and life on earth. Whether or not they were people of faith is immaterial to acclaiming their seminal contributions to human knowledge. If, as a species, we are at the center of anything, it is the responsibility this knowledge bestows on us to steward the planet wisely. Because no other species on earth has looked through a telescope. And no other species has voyaged the world to survey its wealth of animals, plants and peoples, and discovered how it came to be.