Neil de Grasse Tyson is showing himself to be a good disciple of Carl Sagan, never questioning his master.
A lot has changed in science since 1980, when Carl Sagan’s Cosmos first aired. Inflation theory was brand new; punctuated equilibria was new; the intelligent design movement was beginning; most of the planets remained to be explored; the Human Genome Project and the ENCODE project were two decades away. Yesterday’s second episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, though, was pretty retro, a trip down memory lane to Sagan’s era, except for cutting edge graphics. We learned in episode 1 that Tyson cherishes his brief apprenticeship under the late Carl Sagan. He learned well. Imagination, as in the first installment (3/10/14) was the driving theme, as it was in 1980’s Cosmos. Here are some of the controversial assertions from the original series used again by Tyson with little modification:
- Describing evolution, Tyson said “It sounds like a great myth or fairy tale”; Sagan had described it as having “the sound of epic myth.”
- Tyson used examples of microevolution (polar bear fur color) to illustrate macroevolution.
- Tyson used examples of artificial selection (dog breeding) to assume natural selection could do even more (“the awesome power of evolution”).
- Like Sagan, Tyson speculated that if evolution could produce all the diversity of life on earth, it must evolve into even more exotic forms on alien worlds.
- He equated criticism of evolution to belief in fixity of species.
- Like Sagan, Tyson said, “Evolution is a … fact. It really happened.” (Tyson inserted “scientific” in the ellipsis, adding, “To me, it is also a soaring spiritual experience.”)
- The episode ended with a direct replay of Sagan’s “history of life in 40 seconds,” with figures of animals morphing into one another.
- The last sentence was a direct quote by Sagan from Cosmos 1.0, “These are some of the things molecules do, given 4 billion years of evolution.”
There were a few new angles on evolution. Aware of intelligent design, Tyson mentioned the phrase briefly in passing, but mischaracterized it as “traditional belief” and fixity of species, using the common Darwinian boilerplate definition of ID as assuming things are too complex to have come about by evolution (the proponents’ definition is found on intelligentdesign.org). In this episode, he did not attack religion directly. Regarding human evolution, he commented that we don’t like to admit we are related to chimpanzees, but he leaped over all the alleged transitions to a cartoon of a village of hunter-gatherers who had already domesticated dogs and crops (presumably by design).
Tyson spent excessive time on dog breeding and polar bears with animation mixed in with live action. He also spent excessive time on extinctions, asserting that there have been 5 major extinctions over billions of years. In discussing the dominance of trilobites, he glided right past the Cambrian explosion. Regarding the origin of life, he said:
Nobody knows how life got started. Science works on the frontier of knowledge and ignorance. There’s no shame in that. The only shame is to pretend we have all the answers.
But throughout the episode, he portrayed evolution as providing all the answers. For the origin of life, he chose just one hypothesis about how life got started: the controversial idea that it began somehow around submerged volcanic vents. This is surprising, because subsequently he took his Spaceship of Imagination into a hydrocarbon lake on Titan, where it is 190 degrees below zero, suggesting a shadowy figure of life just darted past his view. (Note: Titan’s lakes may be much shallower than the 200 meters Tyson’s imaginary ship descended to; the lack of wave action suggests they are shallow mudflats, and probably opaque with tars, too; but see Nature News followed by Science Daily.) Most of his statements about evolution and millions of years were question-begging assertions that these things were so (circular reasoning). Circularity was again prominent as he walked imaginary Halls of Extinction and looked out over landscapes of perished species over millions of years – a picture that presupposes the evolutionary timeline.
Perhaps the most surprising visuals in the episode were stunning new animations of kinesins walking down cellular highways with their cargoes, and other molecular machines, especially the DNA duplicating machine acting like a precision tool with moving parts. Tyson even mentioned the exquisite proofreading that takes place during cell division. His portrait of DNA, however, was more the “Central Dogma” version (DNA codes for protein in one direction), not the more modern epigenetic, highly-regulated picture that has come to light recently. The brief excursions into cellular machinery were swamped, though, by simplistic portrayals of eye evolution and the slime-to-man morphing stick figures at the end. Tyson was careful to mention several times that mutations are random, implying that single base-pair substitutions were capable of generating all the diversity of organisms in Darwin’s Tree of Life, a centerpiece of the episode.
Instead of “Some of the things molecules do,” Episode 2 could be called, “some of the things Sagan disciples do, given 34 years of evolutionary indoctrination.”
Once again, the visuals are fun, as long as you realize you are watching cartoons, not science. It’s like Star Trek pretending to be reality TV.
Exercise: Quote Tyson in your comments about the series: “Science works on the frontier of knowledge and ignorance. There’s no shame in that. The only shame is to pretend we have all the answers.” Then quote him saying “Evolution is a scientific fact.” Then quote him saying “To me, it [evolution] is also a soaring spiritual experience.” Ask your friends what side of the knowledge/ignorance frontier he is on, and how he knows what side he is on, if his knowledge reduces to “what molecules do, given four billion years of evolution.”