Saturday, March 22, 2014

Cosmos Review: "Some of the Things Molecules Do" - Life Finds a Way

The Ship of the Imagination skims Titan's methane lakes in "Cosmos"

Neil DeGrasse Tyson has a clear reverence for Carl Sagan and the original Cosmos.  We saw it in the very first episode when he reintroduced viewers to the Spaceship of the Imagination, Earth’s stellar address, and the Cosmic Calendar.  The episode closed with a remembrance of Sagan and a reflection on his importance, not just to the world of science, but to an individual scientist, Tyson, in particular.  This reverence will be a good thing if it means that Cosmos will have the same passion for science and for communicating science.  But it can also cause problems when that reverence leads to the insertion of incidental or ill-explained material into the narrative.

Sunday night’s episode, “Some of the Things Molecules Do” had two such problems.  First were the title and the closing line, quoted from the original Cosmos, “some of the things molecules do.”  In the second episode of the original Comsos, “One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue,” Sagan went much more in depth into molecules and their roles in the creation and maintenance of life on our planet.  Tyson, on the other hand, took a much broader view of evolution even while he was focusing on one particular body part, the eye.  The result is that, by the end of the episode, we really don’t have any conception of what role molecules play in evolution.

The second problem is related to the first and comes in the animation used to illustrate human evolution at the end of the episode.  This piece of animation was taken directly from Sagan’s Cosmos and was remarkable for the time.  In fact, it was one of the first representations of computer-generated imagery on television.  But it was part of an eight-minute segment in which Sagan carefully explained the idea of human evolution from the very dawn of life to the present day.  He also detailed the points at which other forms of life branched off from our own.  It’s a very important piece of the Cosmos story, but the 40-second animation is merely the finale to a longer discussion.  To present it here, bereft of context, strips it of its power.

I may be nitpicking because the first forty minutes of “Some of the Things Molecules Do” were fantastic.  Like Sagan, Tyson uses an example of artificial selection to demonstrate the processes of natural selection.  Whereas Sagan used the Heikegani crab* for his example, Tyson looks at dogs and it’s an extremely compelling argument.  Realizing that the entire world’s population of dogs is descended from the first domesticated wolves (or the wolves who first domesticated humans depending on how you look at it) is a big step in understanding the process of natural selection.  Artificial selection, combined with the discussion of how the eye evolved (a common bugaboo among young-earth creationists) makes for a very compelling case for evolution.

* The Heikegani is a species of crab native to Japan.  They are notable for their shell patterns that resemble the faces of Samurai.  Some scientists hypothesized that Japanese fishermen would throw the crab most resembling human faces back into the ocean out of reverence for the samurai while keeping those that did not resemble human faces for food or tools, thus artificially selecting for crabs that look more like humans.  This hypothesis has been questioned, though, in recent years.

The entire episode, in fact, was essentially a 45-minute exploration of Jeff Goldblum’s famous line from Jurassic Park: “Life finds a way.”  From natural selection to the recovery after extinction events, life finds a way.  It adapts.  It survives.  But it survives as something new.  What came before will lay the groundwork for what comes after, but it will not be the same.  And it’s in the Hall of Extinctions that we first get a hint as to Tyson’s larger argument: We too are headed for an extinction event.  For there is one hallway, still unnamed, that will one day tell the story our demise. 

This isn’t a concept new to Cosmos.  Carl Sagan spoke of the threat of war and nuclear proliferation in his version, an idea he expanded upon in his book Pale Blue Dot.  “The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand.”  It’s almost a certainty that the extinction event Tyson will warn us about is the effects of global climate change.  While it would be a disaster for humanity, it’s nice to know that even if we ruin this planet for ourselves, life will likely find a way.

 So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me that my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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