Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Getting used to being ordinary

The Phoenix has landed. On the money. And here is yet another photograph of the surface of Mars.

No surprises. And that's the biggest part of the story.

The surface of Mars appears very like the surface of Earth. It has dust and pebbles and boulders. Hills and valleys. Winds and weather. Day and night. Seasons. Photographs from the Phoenix are virtually indistinguishable from photographs of the surface of the Earth.

Phoenix's message from Mars is this: Our place in the universe is unexceptional.

We have yet to come to terms with this message. Many more missions to many more places, perhaps even to the planets of other stars, will be necessary before we at last surrender our ancient claim to uniqueness and centrality.

Anthropologists tell us that many tribal peoples designated a central place in the village as the center of the cosmos; then, as their horizons widened, those peoples discovered a village next door with another center. Medieval European maps showed a central Europe rimmed with wildness and barbarism; when Europeans reached the Americas in the late 15th century, they found folks just like themselves, living in cities, raising domesticated plants and animals, worshiping gods with human faces.

Copernicus displaced the Earth from its central location in the cosmos. Twentieth-century astronomers bumped the Sun into an ordinary suburb of the Milky Way Galaxy. The Galaxy itself is typical.

Every time we thought ourselves special, central, or unique, we have been chastened by experience. Some scientists and philosophers have raised this recurring disappointment to the level of a principle -- the so-called Mediocrity Principle: The universe looks much the same from here as from anywhere else. We are cosmically mediocre.

The word "mediocre," although accurate in its original meaning ("of middling degree"), has an uncomplimentary connotation. "Fairly bad," says the dictionary. The Commonplace Principle might be a better way to put it: Our place in the universe is commonplace.

But again, "common" bears a negative connotation. "Of inferior quality, low-class, vulgar," says the dictionary in one of its several meanings.

Our language of middling degree is loaded with value. "Mediocre," "common," "average," "ordinary": All of these words suggest inferiority. But to be ordinary, to be average, to be commonplace, is to be at the center of a bell-curve of diversity, neither good nor bad.

We need to wrest the language of middling degree from its perjorative history. We need a fanfare for the common man, the common species, the common planet, the common star. We need to look anew at our place in the creation -- a place that appears to be utterly commonplace -- and rethink what it means to call ourselves good. Not good because we are at the top of the heap, but because the whole heap is good.