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"Cosmos" Episode 2: Evolution Boogaloo

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Cosmos | March 17, 2014 | Comments ()


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It’s that time of the week, time for SCIENCE.

We begin with Tyson sitting at a campfire, well-bundled against the cold, visions of times past flashing in the flickering flames. The soft rumble of his voice tells you that it’s time to talk of dogs and wolves and evolution. But this isn’t hypothetical, because there is a goddamned wolf trying to eat our goddamned scientist. You can keep Liam Neeson. Tyson chasing off wolves with a torch is all I need in my primitive survival scenarios.

From there, we launch again into some animation. I was skeptical in the first episode, I’m not usually a fan of the animated interludes, but the ones in this show are beautiful. They’ve made a clear artistic choice to keep the animated sequences all rendered in the same style. They’re visually distinct, not trying for anything approaching realism that just falls flat into the uncanny valley. There’s also a retro vibe of old school seventies and eighties animation from educational television that seems like it should be offputting but is instead just the right bit of nostalgia to make it all work.

One thing about this series that makes it so distinct from other science television is that it is about telling a story. So it jumps almost wildly from topic to topic, but it’s building on an underlying theme. Wolves and artificial selection to polar bears and natural selection, to the vast variety of life, to what DNA is, to what extinction does, to what life might look like elsewhere. We’re skipping stones across water here on an individual level, each of these items could be the subject of hours in and of itself, but this show is looking at the bigger picture, it’s tying those ideas into an overall narrative of how we came to understand the workings of the universe. It’s equal parts telling us how evolution works, and how we discovered evolution works.

Tyson is approaching science as a beast of two aspects: it tells us how things got to be the way they are, even as it drives us upwards. It tells us our past as it builds our future. Science is not the story of how the world works, it’s the story of how we figured out that we could understand the way the world works.

And we again have broadsides, beautiful thundering leveling of charges of arrogance on those who refuse to believe that they don’t already have the answers handing down from high. Again and again he sets up the old arguments that scientists can’t know what they’re talking about, the contrived email chain logic of “half an eye is no good so obviously evolution is false and scientists are idiots” and knocks them down with the quick strokes of narrative, of “this is what we know and how we know it.”

Tyson exquisitely brings to the forefront the pride of ignorance. It’s easy to be certain, but it’s the bravest thing in the world to be uncertain. That’s what science is: admitting that we can be wrong, admitting that we don’t know. It’s about pointing out just how tiny we are in the scope of the universe, and highlighting the perverse arrogance of thinking that you are the center of the universe when it is so much bigger than you even deign to admit.

But more: despite this scale, and despite our own miniscule place in it all, we can understand it. It’s this spine-tingling act of defiance that captures the best of what science is. The universe is so vast that we are but specks of star dust, and yet from that darkness of an unthinking world, we have dared to believe that we can matter. Science is the greatest story of an underdog imaginable.



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • This is just such a damn exciting show. It makes me happy.

    And a big thumbs-up to the music. Evolution NEEDS that epic score.

  • idiosynchronic

    That episode was one of the most politely delivered smackdowns I've ever witnessed.

    Now we just need to address the awesomely shameful number of commercials in each episode. But I'd be happy with banning the Hardee's/Carl's Jr. ad about the supermodel and the fish sandwich. That woman hasn't tasted fast food since she was 11 or 12.

  • e jerry powell

    The NatGeo repeat is stripped down a little so that they can get more show in the show. The FOX airing is driving the commercials.

  • chanohack

    !!!

  • e jerry powell

    My bitch bettah have my science,
    Come rain, sleet or snow,
    My bitch bettah have my science...

  • As a Bio major, I loved this episode. Loved that he touched on natural selection and genetic mutation and how our environment impacts our development.

    I knew about 80% of what was shown but loved getting it again.

  • cruzzercruz

    Someone I knew was complaining that it's content we learned (or should have) in middle/high school. I told her that it isn't about educating us, it's about reminding us how majestic it all is, and piquing our interest in things many of us toss by the wayside in our daily lives.

  • Elizabeth

    For those of us with nominally decent educations, it's a reminder. For the legions of the home schooled,religious right, and products of really crappy schools, it may be a first introduction to these beautiful ideas.

  • BWeaves

    I found it a bit jarring when Carl Sagan narrates a bit of the show. It sounds like Tyson has lost his voice. I like it, it's just a bit weird.

    I liked this episode much better than the first one. Now we're getting to some real meaty science.

    Also, TARIDGRADES!!!

  • chanohack

    I thought of you when they showed up! (Stalkery?)

  • cruzzercruz

    I want to see Tyson's face responding to everyone with "Your god is too small."

    That's what I envisioned him growling to the wolf as he stood, facing the darkness, torch in hand.

  • I'm pretty sure that's House Science's family motto in Game of Thrones.

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