Editor's comment

Shapley's response to an
expanding universe is thoroughly optimistic. In our increasing scientific
knowledge, he sees an opportunity for mental growth and calls it our evolutionary future. He welcomes the challenge that arises out of "our necessarily continuous conflict with the Tyranny of the Unknown."

The comparison of this world-view with that of Bertrand Russell's in"A Free Man"s Worship is extreme.

Shapley, Harlow The View From a Distant Star, Dell Publishing, New York 1963 [abridged—1900 words] — an optimistic view

The Human Response to an Expanding Universe

We started with the birth and growth of atoms and speedily progressed through a myriad of atomic, molecular, stellar and cellular stages to universal life. Where does mankind fit into all this? What sort of perspective does this knowledge give him regarding his own future?

In the middle of the twentieth century, we have burst into a new realm of knowledge that is bound to impel fundamental alterations in our view of the destiny of our species— and its possibilities. In the micro cosmos, the physicist is dismembering the atom and measuring the quantum, and the biologist is unraveling the mysteries of the gene. In the macro cosmos, the astronomer is exploring an expanding universe of billions of galaxies, each with its billions of stars, and the mathematician has regularized beautiful concepts concerning the interiors of stars and the history of space-time.

The new astronomical and biochemical revelations establish firmly our belief in the cosmos-wide occurrence of life. When we add the discovery that the sun, planets, and naked eye stars are indifferently located at the edge of one ordinary galaxy, we establish man’s place in the universe as less unique than his vanity pictured it a brief century ago…

There can be no better laboratory for the elaboration of thoughts on man’s orientation in a complex world than a flowering meadow, or a noisy brook, or a spiral galaxy. For the green leaves of the meadow are sucklings of a star’s radiation. The rapids in a brook, responding to universal gravitation, perform erosions such as those that have worn down to oblivion the lofty pre-AIps and the primitive Appalachians. The hundred-ton maple tree that calmly dreams through the decades is in the same universe as the Andromeda galaxy with its billions of seething stars. The tree heeds the impulse of gravity according to the same rules as those subscribed to by the stars in a globular cluster. Further, the tree is made of the same complex molecular aggregates as are the birds in its branches, the parasites on its roots, and the philosophers who wonder about it.

In our complex universe one simple requirement stands out: we must link ourselves with all the other phenomena that participate in life. We must go beyond life and associate ourselves continually and insistently with the solid rocks of the earth, the gaseous winds of the sky.

Of course, it is our privilege to fancy ourselves as the thinkers and prognosticators for all earthly organisms of the past, present, and future, for all the stars and nebulae, for all the basic entities. We may cherish the hallucination that we are dominant because we can think and can make a pattern for all the world.

A close student of social insects, however, will not boast about the superiority of man’s social awareness, and he may even qualify the claim for superiority of the human brain. He has seen too much of the wonderful—this student of animal societies. He has seen the honeybee dance her complex geometry, instructing by sight and scent and diagram her student gatherers of honey and pollen. He has witnessed the magic of many insects carrying out their complicated enterprises.

“But we alone can reason,” you insist. But that is a totally unreasonable assumption. What evidence is there of thoughtlessness and unreason in the bird choosing its nesting site or a spider locating its web? The generic mind has a great deal to do with controlling the decisions, but the behavior shows an appropriate adjustment to the immediate situation…

The teaching of all this is: Don’t take man too seriously, even when orienting him among the plants and animals on this local planet, and certainly not when comparing him with possibilities elsewhere in the richly endowed Meta-galaxy…

Our limited sense organs

When we turn from the mind to the senses through which we perceive nature, our self-esteem again is healthily eroded.

Seeing and hearing provide our best methods of ascertaining what is what, and why. The eyes and the ears—without them it would be a strange world. With better eyes and ears, and with additional sense organs, we might have attained long ago a much finer cosmic knowledge than we have up to now…

We are doing pretty well with the equipment Nature provided. But the eyes and other sense organs arose naturally to serve animals in the practical problems of existence, not for use in profound thought and for researches into the nature and operations of the universe. Practical existence did not until recently require “impractical” knowledge.

But now our intellectual desires have gone ahead of our built-in sensory receptors. Even when we supplement the sense of vision with our sense of hearing, with our poor sense of smell, and a complex of tactile senses, we are not yet well equipped intrinsically to cope with cosmic mysteries. In fact, as an organism ambitious to know, and know deeply, man is rather primitive in his senses…

However, the sensory shortcomings, and the resulting failure to comprehend fully much of nature, may be only a local hominid deficiency. On the basis of the new estimates of the great abundance of stars and the high probability of millions of planets with highly developed life, we are made aware— embarrassingly aware—that we may be intellectual minims in the life of the universe. This uncomfortable idea can be further developed by pointing out that sense receptors, in quality quite unknown to us and in fact hardly imaginable, which record phenomena of which we are totally ignorant, may easily exist among the higher sentient organisms of other planets.

Sometimes we suspect that many animal and plant forms on this planet may possess senses other than those we recognize in ourselves—not merely extended ranges of hearing or of vision or of smell but entirely different responses. The bees and ants respond, as we do not, to polarized light; the birds and fish in migration—to what? And there are those among us who dream of vestigial or embryonic senses hovering about the human psyche.

Growth Through Understanding

To summarize our cosmic self-appraisal: We are primitive in a sensory sense. We are incurably peripheral, on a remote edge of a billion-starred galaxy. With help from our star we have slowly evolved from the wonder-working Archaeozoic ooze in which so many biological experiments were made. We have arisen from the same primeval Hot Thin Soup from which also evolved bluebirds and roses and a million other wonderfully constructed organisms. We must henceforth live with awareness of these cosmic facts and of our ancestry, no matter how disturbing such knowledge is to rigid creeds. With much less convincing evidence than now at hand, we have been for a century vaguely aware of our immediate anthropoid ancestry.

The cosmic immensities, whether of space and time or of outlook and concept, should not, however, dismay us, the local gropers and interpreters. In our natural program of growth through understanding, each day competes with our yesterdays. Fortunately for us that competition, that striving and groping, is largely inborn, nicely automatic; our succeeding days compete as a matter of course. If care is taken to oppose vigorously the natural regressions that often ensue from static conformity, we shall continue to evolve with the rotating of the planets and the radiating of the suns. We grow naturally with the passage of time, as do the animals and the plants.

We have reached a stage where this automatic, slow, slight, and hesitant rising is no longer enough for us—the considerably intelligent and somewhat informed species self-styled Homo Sapiens. But we can consciously speed up our development. What we should strive for is not growth in size, or strength, or longevity, but growth primarily in the qualities that we associate with mind, a development that includes those fine indefinables—heart and spirit. And therein lies the nucleus of our cosmic ethic. The evidence clearly shows that we have the potentiality not only of conforming to the cosmic theme of Growth but perhaps even of elaborating or revising some of its natural rules. Indeed, each day can and should compete with all the yesterdays of our species…

The new knowledge from many sources—from the test tube, from the extended radiation spectrum, the electron microscope, experimental agriculture, and the radio telescope, from mathematical equations and the cosmotrons—the revelations from all these, which were wholly unknown to the ancient cosmologists and prophets, make obsolete many of the earlier world views. The new discoveries and developments contribute to the unfolding of a magnificent universe; to be a participant therein is also magnificent. With our confreres on distant planets, with our fellow animals and plants of the Earth’s land, sea and air, with the rocks and waters of all planetary crusts, with the photons and atoms that make up the stars—with all these we are associated in an existence and an evolution that inspire respect and deep reverence…

Confessing to Optimism

It seems proper to conclude this discussion of man’s response to the expanding universe on a note of humility and hope, if not of high confidence. Certainly we should be humble about our trivial progress toward understanding the total of the external world. We know enough to get along, as do most of the other animals. We can cope with all the physical challenges. And going further, we can construct new worlds of ideas and beauty.

We optimists assume that the human mind and heart will successfully confront the dangers to mankind as they arise. Our habitation on a pretty steady planet is comfortable on the average, and may get happier. We have increased the length of our useful lives. We have built up ethical systems that average to bring us safety and satisfaction, although they worry us deeply by frequent failures. We know that the rules of the stars are hard, that the flow of time is irreversible, that death is dark and will accept no substitutes. But even so, the lights can, if we cooperate, exceed the shadows. The imagination can enter when knowledge falters. We of the higher primates have delved into the cosmic facts deeply enough to recognize the need of cosmic fancies when facts are delayed. But as rational practitioners of life and tentative interpreters of the cosmos, we oppose superstition—the last stronghold of the irrational—and we deny miracles.

Thanks to man’s reasoning, belief in the supernatural is now tempered with thought. Science has captured many outposts in our necessarily continuous conflict with the Tyranny of the Unknown. We no longer need appeal to anything beyond Nature when we are confronted by such problems as the origin of life, or the binding forces of nucleons, or the orbits in a star cluster, or the electrochemical dynamics of a thought. We can assail all such questions rationally.

It is my own belief that the central motive of biological existence is to grow in refined complexity, in durability, adaptability. Man, as half beast, half angel, must of course comply with the biogenic common law, but he is able to make amendments thereto. It is probable, and certainly deeply to be desired, that the men of the future will correct our shortcomings and build on the basis of our thoughts and acts a finer mental and social structure—one that is in better keeping with Nature’s heavy investment in the locally dominant human race.