From Ptolemy to Darwin


4th century AD

Claudius Ptolemy was a scientist who lived in the 4th century AD during the days of the Roman Empire. He drew up a brilliant and complex astronomical chart showing the movements of the stars and planets. It explained the observable phenomena so well that it was thoroughly accepted by all educated people. Within a few generations, with no forthcoming evidence to the contrary, it became entrenched in the educational systems all over the Roman Empire.

Ptolemy was an example of the best of Aristotelian thought, a geocentric (earth centered) view of the universe derived from the teachings of Aristotle. There were certain movements – especially of the planets— that were extremely hard to explain from a geocentric perspective. So that’s where Ptolemy came in. His explanation of the stars and planets was so brilliant (though wrong, of course), so thorough and complex, that it held sway in universities from the days of the Roman Empire and on through the Middle Ages. In fact, Ptolemy’s grand scheme of the heavenly bodies and their movements became the rule of thumb for over one thousand years.

Copernicus and Galileo

Then along came Nicolaus Copernicus. In the 1400’s he put forth a paper at a university in Europe stating why he thought the sun was the center rather than the earth. His only evidence was mathematical. All other observable evidence went against him. His ideas were not generally believed, and really, they should not have been believed. He simply did not have enough evidence. Most people, including scientists and educators, should expect more evidence before bailing on a long-standing view that has served them well for over a millennia.

Next, about a century later in the 1500’s, Galileo came on the scene. He studied Copernicus and believed he was right because of the math. But Galileo was not believed either, and he was held under house arrest by the Roman Catholic Church the last few years of his life because of his stand. Non-Christians love to say this was a case of “the church against science,” blind faith against rational evidence. However, this is a simplistic and misinformed interpretation of the events. Several recent books, which have taken a closer look at what happened, say that it was, rather, the university system of the time which put pressure on the church to charge Galileo with heresy. The Pope himself was receptive to Galileo’s ideas until he was influenced by university professors who were opposed to Galileo’s theories and who convinced the pope that these new ideas were heretical.

The church of that era – like most churches of most eras – simply believed what the scientists told them about the universe. The church had adopted a whole system of thought (Aristotelian) that did indeed rest on the idea of the earth being at the center of things. But that’s because the scientists had taught them that from early in the Christian era.

It was the university professors who first felt threatened by these new ideas. After all, who wants to think that what you have been teaching and writing about for all of your scholarly career has been completely wrong?  And in addition, Galileo didn’t have much more proof than Copernicus until, that is, he finally got a hold of a new invention — the telescope.

Science vs. Science

The important thing to realize is that the controversy was science against science, not faith against science. And it was the majority of scientists who were completely wrong.

As new evidence finally came forth (mainly with the telescope), scientists were faced with the necessity of changing their point of view. It became inescapable to accept a sun-centered system – a solar system. And what did the church do? It went right along, changing with the science of its day as it almost always does.

For a thousand years Ptolemy’s ideas had reigned, and they had reigned because his charts and figures explained the natural phenomena so well. It was because his scheme of the universe was so well thought-out  that it was received and accepted by educated men for centuries. His ideas explained observable phenomena in an acceptable and organized way.

 Science led to Belief in God

There have always been atheists in every age. But it has always, until modern times, been intellectually difficult to uphold an atheistic philosophy of life for one key reason: there was no other explanation for the order and complexity of life apart from the notion of a creator-god. The fact that ALL THIS exists flies in the face of your honest, everyday atheist. How can he explain how all this came about? To a scientist this can be even more troubling. He is busy day in and day out studying the intricacies of created things. The beauty of what he sees implies an artist, the design and order of what he studies implies a designer. Science is, after all, the study of God’s handiworks, and the Bible tells us that God is manifest in His handiworks. That’s why, up until the 1800’s, almost all the leading scientists were Christians. Kepler wrote praises in the margins of his scientific notebooks, Newton credited Christianity with the reason why science in the west had come so far, and the list goes on and on. So, until modern times, the study of science tended to bring a man or woman to God, not send him down the road to atheism.

A Shift in Thinking

But by the 1800’s science was beginning to take over the role of religion among the educated elite. This period is known as the Enlightenment or Age of Reason. It was beginning to sound “smart” to say you didn’t believe anything you couldn’t prove with science. Man was worshipping the study of God’s handiworks, instead of God Himself. Philosophies arose pronouncing that religion was just an ignorant “superstition” of the Middle Ages. The fact of existence was still a logical problem, however. There was still no good rational and natural explanation for life, but many atheists were thinking, “If only there were some way to explain how it all got here without resorting to something supernatural and without having to stick some god into the equation!”

Then along came Charles Darwin and his book Survival of the Species. According to well-known scientist Richard Dawkins, “Darwin made it possible for an atheist to be intellectually fulfilled.”

Darwin’s ideas were the rational explanation for which the intellectual elite were waiting. His theories were lapped up hungrily by those who had been looking for a way to rid science once and for all from religious “mumbo-jumbo” about a supernatural creation. Within only a few generations, his theories became entrenched. Darwin’s followers thought, just as Darwin himself did, that the fossil evidence would be forthcoming in the next century. The science of paleontology had just gotten started, and most scientists thought that the bones of animals in all the different stages of evolution would be found over the next few decades. They are still waiting.

Darwin’s ideas were accepted because:

  1. There was no substantial evidence to the contrary.
  2. There was clear evidence that his ideas of natural selection did, indeed, operate in nature and could explain certain observable changes within a given species (no observable evidence, however, of changing one species into another one because that took such a long period of time).
  3. His ideas sounded intellectually sophisticated. Atheism was more popular then than ever among the intellectual set. In fact, for the first time since the days when the Roman Empire first became a Christian state, the Biblical view of origins was seen as anti-intellectual.

Just like Ptolemy

Just as Ptolemy’s ideas once reigned, so now did Darwin’s. Both men were brilliant theorists. Both offered explanations for observable phenomena. The theories of both were immediately well received because of what was known (or not known) at the time, and  because of the intellectual climate of the time. Then, for both, even as hard evidence started coming in to the contrary, it was very difficult to get the entrenched ideas out of the universities, out of the various intellectual and cultural strongholds.

Ptolemy illustrates how wrong science can be. A theory may be intelligent and highly useful, yet completely wrong. And the more brilliant the hypothesis, the more entrenched it is likely to become over the years. And Darwin, like Ptolemy, offered brilliant explanations for what we see around us. I believe that he, too, was just brilliantly wrong.