‘Cosmos’ Takes Its Time in Defense of Evolution

Cosmos: Episode 2

In its second week of shooting science out into the living rooms of the world, the Neil deGrasse Tyson-hosted show Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey continues to deliver what those who believe in science have expected. This expectation was best explained to me earlier this week, in casual discussion, as “religious television for atheists.” I would contend that it’s more along the lines of “religious television for people of science.” Because as the show itself is quick to admit, there’s a bit of spirituality at work any time we begin exploring the nature of humanity and everything around us.

In addition to some of that grand, graphically-intense imagery that’s nothing short of science porn, Cosmos took some time during its second episode to build the foundation for its defense of evolution.

“Accepting our kinship with all life on Earth is not just solid science,” explains our baritone host and adventurer. “In my view, it’s a soaring spiritual experience.” In moments (and episodes) such as this one, the sheer fact that such a show has made its way onto a network like Fox seems unbelievable. What deGrasse Tyson is sharing with the world, simulcast across both Fox and National Geographic, is not just the science behind evolution, but the standpoint that it’s not a belief so much as a provable system of study.

It’s true that for some modern humans, the idea that we are descendant from monkeys doesn’t sit well. But as deGrasse Tyson and the visual engineers behind the show quickly show us, it’s not just humans and monkeys. We share the same stuff as many of the Earth’s other inhabitants:

Cosmos: DNA Map

And it’s not just star stuff, as Carl Sagan once told us in another version of this journey. Cosmos once again uses big visuals to connect a complex idea with the viewing public, showing off strands of DNA and easy-to-understand graphics. For anyone who has studied biology beyond the secondary level, this would be remedial. But for the vast majority of Americans, this is potentially more effective than years of public education. It’s brighter and it looks like a Steven Spielberg movie.

Perhaps that’s the point Cosmos is getting at — that engaging an audience by whatever means necessary is worthwhile in the pursuit of inspiring minds. It’s a computer-generated, frilly way of selling people on the larger ideas that science has to offer. Opening the minds of a world that is often suffocated by rhetoric from groups with varying agendas. There’s nothing wrong with religion or faith, but those pursuits don’t answer questions like science does.

Our host said it much better: “Science works on the frontier between knowledge and ignorance. We’re not afraid to admit what we don’t know. There’s no shame in that. The only shame is to pretend that we have all the answers.”

It’s sad that science needs a defense attorney in the court of public opinion, but it’s nice to know that it has a good one.

True to its name, “Some of the Things That Molecules Do,” this week’s episode finished with one of the most iconic bits of animation from Carl Sagan’s original show, complete with a vocal appearance from the man himself. It’s best known as 4 Billion Years of Evolution in 40 Seconds: