Our cosmic ancestry in the stars: the deepest questions
Where have we come from? Where are we going? What are we here for? Is life unique to this rocky planet we call Earth? These are the deepest of philosophical questions and perhaps the very first that were asked as soon as Homo sapiens acquired the intellectual capacity to do so. The first answers, as far as we can glean from surviving fragmentary evidence—folklore and cave art—invariably turned to the skies. The spectacle of the Milky Way must surely have overwhelmed our ancestors, as, indeed, it overwhelms us today. This sense of awe may have led directly to the concept of the sun god and other gods, all of whom were placed in the skies. The humans— Homo sapiens— were still helpless creatures beholden and subservient to the inexorable power of the universe. The harsh vicissitudes of nature—droughts, floods, storms at sea, earthquakes—all contributed to enslave and humiliate them. They needed the gods of the heavens to provide psychological comfort, solace, and safe passage through the journey of life.
Humankind’s Subservience to Nature
Humankind’s subservience to nature has found expression in art from the earliest cave paintings to modern times. Paul Gauguin’s 1897 painting with the title Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? says it all. These are the same questions we continue to ask even in the present day.
Paul Gauguin’s 1897 painting ‘ Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’ ( Public Domain )
With advances in technology some of the cruelest forces of nature were tamed. Civilization marched forward, and our ancestors began to feel they were more and more in control of their destiny. Control appeared to shift from the universe, with its capricious ever-changing patterns, to the fixed Earth, which was deemed constant, eternal, and largely under human control.
We realize now, or at least we should have realized, that our entire genetic heritage (except for minor tweaking) came from the vast external universe. Earth was just an insignificant building site on which the blueprint of all life came to be assembled into a great multitude of different forms. Throughout the universe there are countless other building sites, more or less like Earth, on which the same process must have occurred. So the humbling realization is that we humans, and indeed all other life on Earth, are utterly unimportant in the wider cosmic context.
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