Nicolaus Copernicus & Animal Rights
Polish physician and mathematician, Copernicus (1473 - 1543) is distinguished for his contribution to our knowledge about the heavenly bodies. He prepared the way for our understanding of humanity's place in the universe and from there, without him realising it, to our modern attitude toward animals.
The ancient Greeks believed Earth was at the centre of the universe and the stars and planets moved in perfect circles around the Earth. This theory of how the heavenly bodies work is called the Ptolemaic system, after Ptolemy (c100 - 170) who lived in Alexandria and developed the idea. In the Middle Ages the Church incorporated the Ptolemaic system into the Church's world view: that God made the world at the centre of creation, forged man as master of the world ruling over animals and nature, and gave humans souls which abide after death in the surrounding heavens. In other words, humans are supreme on Earth over all creatures (see Anthropocentrism).
Monument to Nicolaus Copernicus in Torun, Poland. He is holding his sphere of the heavens. Photo: René Klein.
The Ptolemaic system had a practical use for predicting seasonal events. But the mathematics behind it was long and complicated. Copernicus' calculations were complex but eventually led to a simplification assuming the sun is at the centre of the universe and everything revolves around it. Copernicus published his ideas in 1543 in his book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium
(About the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs) as he lay on his deathbed.
The idea of the sun-centred universe gradually filtered through Europe and caused growing alarm. Inadvertently Copernicus had started to change the established religious assumption of human supremacy and set going a revolution in human society. If the sun-centred idea was right then the Church's authority was wrong and humanity is not in a privileged position at the centre of the universe. Moreover, if the Church was wrong about this then the Church could be wrong about everything else and its inflexible all demanding authority would crumble, as it did.
Copernicus helped start the transformation from thinking that humans are supreme over animals to the realisation that man is but an animal himself (see Aquinas and Darwin).
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