As I wrote last week, I never watched the original Cosmos series hosted by the late Carl Sagan but was intrigued to give the new series a go. My family and I enjoyed episode one, “Standing Up in the Milky Way,” and made a plan to tune in again. Sunday night came, and with it a steady snow. I told my son to take a bath and he cried, “not until after Cosmos!” Looks like the first episode stuck.
Episode two, “Some of the Things That Molecules Do,” begins with a gentle introduction to the evolutionary process by way of dogs. It’s an effective, least-likely-to-offend example—given how beloved dogs are around the globe. (Incidentally, I found out how revered they are a few years back after running an article on evolutionary psychology and modern dog culture.) Seems the whole “best friend” thing is true, as Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson explains in tracing the domestication of dogs from wolves—an evolution of tameness, allowing for greater survival, coupled with human selection of canines based on desirable characteristics like loyalty, cuteness, and so on. It was the “first time humans took evolution into their own hands,” Tyson notes, relaying the story while sitting beside an outdoor fire in the woods. The dramatization is less campy this time around (no pun intended) and Tyson seems to be easing into this role quite nicely.
The Ship of the Imagination then takes us to the molecular level, where dazzling animation of DNA shows double strands splitting and replicating, with occasional random mutations. DNA is, Tyson tells us in his genuinely inspired tone, “a language all life can read.” The story of a mutation leading to the evolution of the polar bear’s white fur brings us back to the tangible scale but my daughter still wants to know what DNA stands for. “Deoxyribonucleic acid,” answers her dad. (He’s a science writer and knows his stuff. My son, whose follow-up question is “What does ‘LOVE’ stand for?” is more like his humanities-drawn mother.)
Human evolution is up next. The show must go there, of course—but I’m annoyed that I find myself fixated on how the writers will broach it. Still, we humanists know only too well that evolution is a touchy subject for people of faith. So the subject must be discussed, not delicately but resolutely and, at times, even subversively.
“We all understand the twinge of discomfort at the thought that we share a common ancestor with the apes,” Tyson intones as we watch a chimpanzee jumping around in the trees. As it throws something, Tyson refers to the animal’s inappropriate behavior and it’s then that the viewer surmises what the chimp threw. To me it’s an odd foray, but I imagine it’s a deliberate attempt to keep skeptical viewers watching.
By the time Tyson completes the survey of the 3.5-billion-year-old Tree of Life—a colorful arrangement representing all plant and animal species on various branches that offers a brilliant antidote to Noah’s Ark—we’ve seen the similarities in the genetic codes of various species and have been shown the evolution of the human eye. It’s a common argument for intelligent design that our eyes are just too complex to be the result of evolution. But starting with light-sensitive underwater bacteria, Cosmos takes us on just such a path, employing a cool split screen to show the improving eyesight of early underwater life forms.
“Evolution really happened,” Tyson tells us, looming large and peering slightly downward into the camera. “Accepting our kinship with all life on earth is not only solid science, in my view it’s a soaring, spiritual experience.” (Glad he got over that earlier twinge of discomfort!)
From there, the episode visits the Halls of Extinction for a look at the five major extinction events in Earth’s history, focusing on the Permian holocaust, and ends with a swing by Saturn’s moon.
“Science works on the frontier between knowledge and ignorance,” Tyson declares, “and we’re not ashamed to admit what we don’t know.” The only shame, he says, is to pretend to have all the answers. His last message is one that falls on very enthusiastic ears in my house: “Maybe someone watching this will be the first to solve the mystery of how life began.”
“I WILL!” my daughter yells.
You can’t make this stuff up. To witness the enthusiasm the show is engendering under my own roof gives me hope that it’s having a similar effect on folks all over this spinning orb that we—all of us—call home.
POSTSCRIPT: My daughter better hurry—scientific discovery is on the move. Just yesterday on the origin of the universe front, physicists and astronomers announced evidence for cosmic inflation, a theory that explains how the universe expanded immediately after the Big Bang.Tags: Carl Sagan, COSMOS, neil degrasse tyson, TV