"All That Is Solid Melts Into Air"

Thanks to science, the world is confusing.

Posted May 07, 2018

          At about the same time that Darwin was upending the human sense of themselves, things were at least as destabilized in the social sphere. As Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto,

"All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind."

            Written in 1848, just as violent revolutions (all of them ultimately repressed) were convulsing Europe, the Manifesto was both a cause of and a response to those shaky times that characterized the middle of the 19th century, an era that from the perspective of 21st century “modocentrism” (see my earlier blog) may well seem comparatively calm and quiet, even boring.

             One needn’t be a Marxist at that time, however, to have felt that solidity was melting into air, and it doesn’t decrease the novelty or importance of revolutionary thinking in physics, biology, geology and socio-economic relationships to note that later in the 19th century, and thanks to the work of Pasteur, Koch, Lister and others, people were also confronted with a new perspective on the causes of disease (the “germ theory”), and with the uselessness of such previously honored therapeutic techniques as bleeding, or such widely accepted notions as the role of the four humors (blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm).

             Before the 19th century came what is widely known as the Enlightenment, when many prior ideas – including but not limited to the legitimacy of religion itself – were subjected to the hard light of reason. As Alexander Pope saw it “Nature's Laws lay hid in Night: God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.” Alas, not quite. Lots of things remained hidden post-Newton, just as the Enlightenment itself had been preceded by some truly profound jostling, notably replacement of the geocentric world-view of Ptolemy with the heliocentric perspective identified by Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, for inhabitants of the 21st century to appreciate the profound sense of disorientation that resulted, and that led many a well-informed person of his or her time to despair that things had never been so confusing, that the place of Homo sapiens had never been so unmoored. 

             The following, from John Donne’s 1611 poem, The Anatomy of the World, expresses the sense of loss verging on betrayal, occasioned by advances in astronomy at the time:

“The sun is lost, and hearth, and no man’s wit/ Can well direct him where to look for it.”

             Eventually, even as we – as a species – found the Earth once again, and came to accept it’s uninspiring position as the third planet out of nine[1] going around a Sun which itself isn’t especially notable, in a decidedly non-central location within a mediocre galaxy (the Milky Way), humanity’s sense of itself began to reel once again, not so much from the insights of astronomy as from biology. For some, the loss of planet Earth’s centrality remained a potent metaphor of disorientation. “What were we doing,” asked Nietzsche in The Gay Science, “when we unchained this earth from its sun? ... Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down?”

             Tempting as it might be to console such anguish with assurance that there still is an up and a down, reality is otherwise. Of course, up and down persists in everyone’s immediate environment, but it is more than trivially true that the direction “down” at any point on Earth, if continued through the planet to the opposite side, becomes “up.” In fact, the standard picture of our globe – with Canada and the United States up and Latin America down, Europe up and Africa down – is simply a north-centric self-congratulation. It would be every bit as accurate, geographically (even as it is deflating, ethnocentrically for those of us in the northern hemisphere) to reverse this perspective, and make the southern hemisphere “up” and the northern, “down.”

               Nietzsche’s sense of “plunging continually” is even greater if you move into the solar system and more yet if you enter deep space, where there absolutely is no up or down. Although this insight is dizzying for some, in a sense it is less disruptive than the one Nietzsche was responding to, and that underpins – and for many people, undermines - everything we know about ourselves.

David P. Barash is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington. His most recent book, Through a Glass Brightly: using science to see our species as we really are, will be published summer 2018 by Oxford University Press.

[1] Now eight, with the demotion of Pluto.