Saturday, May 13, 2006

The familiar and the unfamiliar

Our mutual friend Lyra sent me this hand-colored plate from Alain Manesson Mallet's monumental late-17th-century work Description de l'Univers. That's the sun shining down on a domestic scene of cattle being led to drink.

Close examination shows mountains in the sun's northern and southern latitudes and what would appear to be a seething lava field between. Volcanos erupt on the sun's limb and across its face. Mallet may have been influenced by the ideas of the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), who among other things studied sunspots. Kircher once had himself lowered into the crater of Mount Etna in Sicily so that he could more closely examine the volcanic activity of that mountain, and by analogy guessed that sunspots might be clouds of smoke emerging from the hot interior of the sun.

It is human nature -- and perhaps a logical necessity -- to explain the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar, which is why children invariably draw a face on the sun, and why anthropomorphic explanations -- animism, artificialism, personal gods, etc. -- are so deeply entrenched in human thought. After all, what is more familiar to us than ourselves?

Anthropomorphism has not been a fruitful scientific principle, but the idea that the rest of the universe resembles the Earth in important ways -- ala Kircher's and Mallet's Sun -- has been stunningly successful. Once Newton showed that the same mathematical law describes the fall of an apple from a tree and the orbits of the planets, anthropomorphism was pretty much finished for scientists. But of course anthropomorphism remains alive and well for those who are uncomfortable with a scientific worldview -- such as the advocates of intelligent design and the nearly half of Americans who take Genesis literally.