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Paul Andersen: Did Copernicus teach us anything?

Science is the culprit when it challenges entrenched social and cultural norms. Scientists are enemies when they shake the bedrock of the status quo.

So it is today as our national leadership condemns climate change science to the Dark Ages and marginalizes forecasters as radicals, alarmists and revolutionaries. But as science steadily gains adherents, the Age of the Anthropocene is in for a shock.

Throughout history scientists have been persecuted, sometimes put to death, by whatever states, institutions or cultures feels threatened by their emergent truths. Their light has routinely been cloaked by the dark shades of ignorance.

Three-hundred years ago the Age of Enlightenment cast brilliant rays of scientific discoveries upon the world. Religious doctrines — until then unquestioned and dominant in thought, belief and power — were suddenly cast into doubt. So were the religious leaders who had built their power on faith-based, lockstep authority.

The Enlightenment was an age of upheaval as a critical mass of scientific evidence and progressive thought upset the rigid norms of the all-powerful clerics. Enter the philosophers Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza and others who questioned the omniscience of the church in a struggle between faith and reason.

Nicolaus Copernicus rocked the world in the 14th century, and Galileo a century later. Forthrightly, they launched the Scientific Revolution by exposing scientific theory to the minds of rational men and fomenting acceptance of new truths that provoked censorship and condemnations from the power elite.

Copernicus' book "The Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres" sent shock waves through the cosmos by stating that the Earth is not the center of the universe. Galileo proclaimed the same and was vilified by the church under the Roman inquisition, which found the idea "foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture."

Today, scientists face the same denials, accusations and threats by questioning anthropocentrism, the hubristic belief that man is the center of the universe. A global tilt is coming toward the biocentric view, asserting that in nature all life is of equal value because interrelations are essential to healthy ecosystems on which all life depends.

This unifying notion of biocentrism challenges the superior role of man as manipulator and dominator of all other life. Our superiority complex fades in the light of scientific reason and holistic rationale.

Ultimately at question is a literal interpretation of the bible, which for centuries has defined dominion as domination, the notion that divine authority grants humans superiority in the assigned hierarchy of life. We need another awakening to recognize a more reasoned and humble place in the web of life.

Science is only part of the rationale for biocentrism. Ethics and morality also must move us toward a higher degree of stewardship where man confers rights on nature as part of Creation. This is a faith-based view that Pope Francis has championed in his encyclical on environment.

Charles Darwin revealed that all species have evolved and continue to evolve, that man is only one of many species to achieve what we, in our limited understanding, consider intelligence.

Darwin's conclusion launched a taboo on teaching evolution, which culminated in the Scopes Monkey Trial. Despite losing his case for defendant Scopes, celebrity lawyer Clarence Darrow put Darwin and Scopes on the front page as truth tellers who refuted the age-old creation mythology.

Climate change is an opportunity for science to evoke a new enlightenment by proving that the human assault on the natural world is creating a global crisis, one that requires immediate corrective actions.

Just as literal biblical interpretation crumbled in the Age of Reason, so must the walls man has built to confine and exploit the natural world come tumblin' down like the walls of Jericho. Science, ethics and morality must blow a trumpet chorus for biocentrism.

As ecosystems crash, species go extinct, the atmosphere is disrupted — all at unprecedented rates — man must accept the wisdom of connectivity that John Muir espoused over a hundred years ago: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

Paul Andersen's column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at andersen@rof.net.