The star cluster Westerlund 2
This image shows the sparkling centerpiece of Hubble’s 25th anniversary tribute. Westerlund 2 is a giant cluster of about 3000 stars located 20 000 light-years away in the constellation Carina. Hubble’s near-infrared imaging camera pierces through the dusty veil enshrouding the stellar nursery, giving astronomers a clear view of the dense concentration of stars in the central cluster.

In medieval times, astrology was synonymous with science, viewed as an infallible knowledge source for insight into human nature, a compass of sorts for predicting human behavior and determining fate. Astrology’s prominence as a reference guide for humanity was, no doubt, a substitute for the absence of fields like neuroscience, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and biology. It was the means by which people in the Middle Ages examined socio-political factors and behavioral differences among rulers and citizens, and provided a framework for understanding variations in the customs, rites, and beliefs systems of different nations.

Although the view of astrology as a reliable, standard measurement of social issues and human activity has become archaic, its presence in medieval times is exemplary of advancements in human thought. During this era, human thinking patterns became increasingly analytical, exhibiting a new awareness of the relationships between past and present events, as well as past and present behaviors. Thought leaders of the period were particularly concerned with endowing behavior and events with meaning, and there was an increased effort to view such aspects as contributions to a larger, inevitable fate.

The connection between medieval subscription to astrological principles and contemporary debates over the role of genetics in human behavior is similar to the nature vs. nurture debate.

The central question being: are our fates dictated by the environments in which we are reared, our genetic history, or both?

Obviously, there are very clear distinctions between astrology and genetics; one is more in keeping with mythology and folklore and the other is based in science. But the view of genetics as a predictor of health and behavioral outcomes shares similarities with medieval reliance on Astrology.

For one, the notion poses the same questions, such as whether or not environment predetermines behavior: are human beings capable of making decisions independent of social environment or, in the end, do our genetics— a euphemism for fate— dictate who we are or who we become?

There are strong arguments for both, but the use of astrology as a thinking guide in the Middle Ages, and its relationship with current ideas about genetics, demonstrates that even primitive notions can be the first step on the journey of scientific discovery.

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