Sometimes secrets are justifiable. But that seems only to be the case in a circumscribed sphere of knowledge. And—in the United States, at least—information remains classified for only so long before it becomes legally accessible to the average citizen and the press. This fact alone suggests an acknowledgement of certain short term risks associated with knowledge, while also admitting that over the long run we value knowledge over its absence or suppression. So, with these concessions in mind, let us further interrogate our intuition.
Would it be better not to know that the Earth orbits the sun? Before Copernicus revived the heliocentric hypothesis, widely accepted by ancient Greek philosophers, Europeans in Christendom could reasonably assume that they were the center of the solar system. Galileo’s observations helped rob us of this comforting myth. Clear thinking clergy at the time certainly guessed what the consequences might be. The leader of the most powerful religious organization on the planet, the Pope, felt that we would all be better off not knowing. At play was a moral calculus intended to sort out whether certain knowledge might be dangerous. In this case, it might cause people to lose their faith (or erode the power of the church, somehow). Of course, the heretics were correct about our place in the solar system. But the rumor of civilization’s great moral demise was vastly overstated.
We may have lost our centrality to the universe, but we retained our special stature as beings created in the image of the Almighty. In 1859, however, that changed too. Charles Darwin upset our intuitions in a way most people still haven’t fully grasped. Darwin understood the subversive consequences of his theory clearly, which partly explains why he waited so long to publish his book on evolution by natural selection, and why he confided to his friend Joseph Hooker that it was like “confessing to a murder” to show that species are not immutable, and that evolution is not a synonym for progress.