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Not far off

July 2, 2010

One of the greatest achievements of modern science was, that it proved the indestructibility of energy through all the ceaseless transformations which it undergoes in the universe. For the physicist and the mathematician this idea became a most fruitful source of discovery. It inspires, in fact, all modern research. But its philosophical import is equally great. It accustoms man to conceive the life of the universe as a never-ending series of transformations of energy: mechanical energy may become converted into sound, light, electricity; and conversely, each of these forms of energy may be converted into others. And among all these transformations, the birth of our planet, its evolution, and its final, unavoidable destruction and reabsorption in the great Cosmos are but an infinitesimally small episode—a mere moment in the life of the stellar worlds.

The same with the researches concerning organic life. The recent studies in the wide borderland dividing the inorganic world from the organic, where the simplest life-processes in the lowest fungi are hardly indistinguishable—if distinguishable at all—from the chemical redistribution of atoms which is always going on in the more complex molecules of matter, have divested life of its mystical character. At the same time, our conception of life has been so widened that we grow accustomed now to conceive all the agglomerations of matter in the universe—solid, liquid, gaseous (such are some nebulae of the astral world)—as something living and going through the same cycles of evolution and decay as do living beings. Then, reverting to ideas which were budding once in Ancient Greece, modern science has retraced step by step that marvelous evolution of living matter, which, after having started with the simplest forms, hardly deserving the name of organism, has gradually produced the infinite variety of beings which now people and enliven our planet. And, by making us familiar with the thought that every organism is to an immense extent the product of its own environment, biology has solved one of the greatest riddles of Nature—it explained the adaptations to the conditions of life which we meet at every step.

[…] And finally, in the vast field of human institutions, habits and laws, superstitions, beliefs, and ideals, such a flood of light has been thrown by anthropological schools of history, law, and economics that we can already maintain positively that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” is no longer a dream, a mere Utopia. It is possible, and it is also clear, that the prosperity and happiness of no nation or class could ever be based, even temporarily, upon the degradation of other classes, nations, or races.

Modern science has thus achieved a double aim. On the one side it has given to man a very valuable lesson of modesty. It has taught him to consider himself as but an infinitesimally small particle of the universe. It has driven him out of his narrow, egotistical seclusion, and has dissipated the self-conceit under which he considered himself the centre of the universe and the object of the special attention of the Creator. It has taught him that without the whole the “ego” is nothing; that our “I” cannot even come to a self-definition without the “thou”. But at the same time science has taught man how powerful mankind is in its progressive march, if it skillfully utilizes the unlimited energies of Nature.

-Peter Kropotkin, Ethics: Origin and Development

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