Faith & Science Icon Faith & Science

No, Copernicus Did Not Remove Us from the Hub of the Universe

Jay W. Richards

This week, Google commemorated the 374th birth of Nicholas Steno, who is an important if somewhat obscure figure in the history of science, and especially geology. It was nice to see him get a little recognition. Chris Gaylord has a good, straightforward story about him. Unfortunately, the publication also has a piece, Nicolas Steno: The saint who undermined creationism, by Eoin O’Carroll that perpetuates several stereotypes about the history of science.
O’Carroll starts well, by noting that “perhaps some of Steno’s obscurity arises from his failure to fit into a narrative that science and religion are adversaries.” And he ends well, explaining that Steno became a devout Catholic and priest whose scientific work strengthened his faith. Steno is now well on his way to being declared a saint. But in the middle, O’Carroll is still too beholden to the stereotypical narrative he otherwise challenges.
Here’s the whopper. He says:

Just as the findings of Copernicus and the astronomers that followed him revealed that the earth is not the hub of the universe, Steno’s revolution dislodged humanity from the center of our planet’s history.

This trope functions like a keyboard macro when journalists write about the history of science. But it’s pure mythology. In pre-Copernican cosmology, the earth was not seen as the hub of the universe, but as the bottom, the place to which heavy, mutable things fall. The very center of the universe, it was supposed, was Hell — hardly a place of privilege. This idea that the center must be the place of privilege is modernist misinterpretation of the history of science. Copernicus most assuredly did NOT “dislodge humanity” from the imagined hub of the universe. And neither, of course, did Steno. How exactly does the moment we arrive on the scene settle questions about our importance? If a bride arrives at her wedding in the last hour, even though preparations have been underway for a year, does that mean she’s insignificant?
The take home lesson is this: The significance of the earth and humanity, or our insignificance, does not hinge on age or “central” location.