"Cosmos" Episode 2: Evolution Boogaloo
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.