Sunday 23 March 2014

Cosmos - Some of the Things that Molecules Do

I expected Cosmos to be good, but it has far exceeded my expectations. This is a wonderful series that absolutely everyone should be watching in order to gain a rounded view of science and the world. What works so well about the series is that it’s clear and accessible, presented in terms that people with no former knowledge of the subject can follow, while still being entertaining to others who may know some or a lot of the topic. It’s a visual feast that absolutely everyone can enjoy.

The second episode, titled "Some of the Things that Molecules Do", delves into that giant of science: evolution. It begins with a look at artificial selection by discussing the history of dog breeding. Dogs are the perfect choice here—not just because I happen to be a dog lover and utterly adore dogs (I have two of my own), but because dogs are things that all the viewers will be familiar with. Many will own dogs of their own, but even if they don’t, they’ll have encountered dogs in numerous ways throughout their lives. Indeed, dogs are a much better choice than the crabs of Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos because viewers will relate to them better (except perhaps for crab fishers and some biologists). They can see examples of this artificial selection right in their own lives, and that helps to make the concept of natural selection more accessible.

Earlier this week, IO9 described this episode as the one “Every young Earth creationist needs to watch”. There’s a great deal of truth to this statement. The episode goes on to explain exactly how evolution works in a straight-forward, easy-to-understand manner. It shows how complex biological systems can develop through random mutation over millions of years, and at the same time shows the lack of perfection that exists in the system by showing the evolution of the eye and how the vision of land animals has never quite been as good since we left the sea. And most importantly, it makes clear that “the Theory of Evolution, like the Theory of Gravity, is a scientific fact.” Host Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t mince words here. He states it very simply. It’s not a matter of opinion. “Evolution really happened.” This is definitely one of the best introductions to evolution I’ve seen and this episode (well, the whole series really) would make great viewing for school science classes.

After taking a look at some of the major extinction events that have happened on Earth over the aeons, the episode then takes a look at the possibility of life on Saturn’s moon, Titan, and discusses the ways such life might be very different from our own. While this segment is entirely speculative, it beautifully illustrates the way that science works, starting with an idea that is then investigated. As the Ship of the Imagination leaves Titan, Tyson wonders if he saw something moving there and comments that we’ll have to return and check again to find out. This is very much the heart of the scientific process: checking again. Results need to be replicated to be reliable. But this segment also stimulates the imagination and is the kind of thing that might attract people to becoming scientists as they ask themselves, “What kind of things might I discover?”

The episode concludes with an animation from the original Cosmos showing the journey of life from a single-celled organism to humankind—another little tribute to Carl Sagan and his original Cosmos series.

Alas, this episode won’t convert every young Earth creationist out there (as can be heard in the audio clip below), but it will provide audiences in general with a much better understanding of just what evolution is and how it works. This is great stuff!

The following radio clip makes me want to slam my head into my desk. Sigh.


  1. I'm certainly no creationist, (and certainly not a young earth creationist), and what little I could stomach from that recording also made me want to bang my head into a brick wall.

    Fortunately, my aversion to pain -- especially self-inflicted pain --stopped me from doing so.

    NDT does annoy me a bit when he goes on and on about the lack of any form of God.

    Evolution, the Big Bang, "intelligent design" and religious faith are not incompatible. God is, by definition, infinite. God, assuming God exists, must exist outside of what we understand as "spacetime". In the sense of God being the "creator", it is quite conceivable that from within the creation, since we can't ever know what goes on beyond our own universe, it would likely (a) appear pretty random and (b) be fully understandable by us who live within it.

    Railing against God simply alienates a portion of his audience that would otherwise benefit greatly from watching the series.

    1. Except at no point does the episode rail against God. It looks at the scientific basis of evolution and does declare evolution scientific fact (which it is). It denies creationism, but does not deny God.

  2. There are a number of statements throughout which appear to suggest the whole series is based around a purely atheist standpoint. There's nothing wrong with being atheist, mind you, but it gets a bits frustrating - well, not just NDT, but many who take an atheist stand do this - when absolutely no possibility for something beyond our capacity to understand in the context of a creator. No capacity or allowance is made for faith. It's pure, hard evidence.

    Now, I get this is science - and science IS evidence - based. This is not a show about the supernatural, or metaphysical. So why bring up the statements about god outside of the historical context? (Such as "Galileo's view opposed the view of the church at the time.")

    I would even think it would be appropriate for NDT to say, at some point, "We are dealing with what we can observe. Our observations and mathematical models indicate that..." None of that is untrue, and none of that fails to allow for something beyond what we can perceive.

    1. I don't think the show is trying to push an atheistic standpoint. However, it is trying to push for an acceptance of evidence. The statements about God are brought up in either a historical context (which you agree is fine) or to counter situations where God is used to deny scientific understanding. In such a situation, what else can one do? If all the evidence points to something being true (like evolution) and someone else says it's wrong for no other reason than their religion says it's wrong, the only thing left to do is address the religion. But this doesn't in any way discount the numerous, numerous religious people who accept scientific evidence. Young Earth creationists are a minority amongst religious people, but unfortunately, they continue to very vocally push evolution as something controversial and open to debate.

      You're also misrepresenting Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is not an atheist and actually gets a bit annoyed when people call him one. He's actually an agnostic. Here are a couple of videos where he discusses his beliefs (unfortunately, I can't embed them in the comments and apparently can't even make a proper hyperlink):

      On atheist vs. agnostic:
      On science and faith: