Excerpt from Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space - Carl Sagan
Chapter 4: A Universe not made for us
Our ancestors understood origins by extrapolating from their own experience. How else could they have done it? So the Universe was hatched from a cosmic egg, or conceived in the sexual congress of a mother god and a father god, or was a kind of product of the Creator’s workshop—perhaps the latest of many flawed attempts. And the Universe was not much bigger than we see, and not much older than our written or oral records, and nowhere very different from places that we know.
We’ve tended in our cosmologies to make things familiar. Despite all our best efforts, we’ve not been very inventive. In the West, Heaven is placid and fluffy, and Hell is like the inside of a volcano. In many stories, both realms are governed by dominance hierarchies headed by gods or devils. Monotheists talked about the king of kings. In every culture we imagined something like our own political system running the Universe. Few found the similarity suspicious. Then science came along and taught us that we are not the measure of all things, that there are wonders unimagined, that the Universe is not obliged to conform to what we consider comfortable or plausible. We have learned something about the idiosyncratic nature of our common sense. Science has carried human self-consciousness to a higher level. This is surely a rite of passage, a step towards maturity. It contrasts starkly with the childishness and narcissism of our pre-Copernican notions.
But why should we want to think that the Universe was made for us? Why is the idea so appealing? Why do we nurture it? Is our self-esteem so precarious that nothing short of a universe custom-made for us will do?
Of course it appeals to our vanity. “What a man desires, he also imagines to be true,” said Demosthenes. “The light of faith makes us see what we believe,” cheerfully admitted St. Thomas Aquinas. But I think there may be something else. There’s a kind of ethnocentrism among primates. To whichever little group we happen to be born, we owe passionate love and loyalty. Members of other groups are beneath contempt, deserving of rejection and hostility. That both groups are. of the same species, that to an outside observer they are virtually indistinguishable, makes no difference. This is certainly the pattern among the chimpanzees, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. Ann Druyan and I have described how this way of viewing the world may have made enormous evolutionary sense a few million years ago, however dangerous it has become today. Even members of hunter-gatherer groups—as far from the technological feats of our present global civilization as it is possible for humans to be—solemnly describe their little band, whichever it is, as “the people.” Everyone else is something different, something less than human.
If this is our natural way of viewing the world, then it should occasion no surprise that every time we make a naive judgment about our place in the Universe—one untempered by careful and skeptical scientific examination—we almost always opt for the centrality of our group and circumstance. We want to believe, moreover, that these are objective facts, and not our prejudices finding a sanctioned vent.