Neil deGrasse Tyson Addresses Creationists' Evolution Fears in 'Cosmos'

This week, Cosmos delved into the mechanics of life on Earth -- while still touching on the subject of religion. 

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Last week's Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey relaunch, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, was met with enthusiasm, especially from critics (like us!) impressed with Tyson's nuanced handling of belief and religion. While last week's episode offered a broad picture of the history of our planet, this week Tyson delved into the mechanics of life on Earth -- while still touching on the subject of religion.

How did Cosmos approach evolution in the second episode?

Abby: This is an important question, but I would just like to emphasize right off the bat that Neil deGrasse Tyson fought some wolves at the beginning of episode two, which is pretty badass.

Danielle: Speaking of fights, the first episode of Cosmos prepared us to expect an exploration of the clash between science and religion, and the second one certainly delivered. The molecules episode addresses evolution, perhaps the most contentious topic in this debate, head on and without apology. The episode opens with an explanation how “artificial selection," or human-driven natural selection, works. The humans-sculpted-evolution thing actually seems like kind of a neat trick -- Tyson is basically saying that just because evolution is true it doesn’t mean that humans are powerless, a notion that seems to be what scares people off from believing in evolution in the first place. 

Abby: Yes! There’s a line before he goes into the DNA similarities across all species of life: “How does that make you feel?” It simultaneously acknowledges that there are strong feelings elicited when one says that, say, a human and a monkey are related, and brackets those feelings as separate from the evidence.

Danielle: It’s interesting that Tyson’s DNA speech is more moving than his appropriation of Sagan’s “we are starstuff” speech in the last episode. His explanation of the genetic throughline between all species, and the galaxy-like complexity of those genetics, is a much more effective way for him to communicate his excitement about science in general. It sort of makes me wish he had opened so passionately last week, but I’m happy to see him this expressive now.

Abby: To be sure, Tyson's delivery in this episode felt a lot more natural than it did in episode one. I don't think it's coincidental that as Tyson seems to take control of the narration, the tone has shifted to a respectful departure from how Sagan presented the original Cosmos. In general, the way in which the cultural authority of and nostalgia for the old series played into Tyson's version was much more subtle by episode two. That's a good thing, as Tyson's Cosmos clearly has the potential to contribute to his own reach as a public scientist. With that ambassadorship comes the ability to present what I thought was a surprisingly detailed discussion of evolution, a scientifically settled but politically controversial issue. And he addressed both: the science and the politics. 

Danielle: Don't forget the global warming mention! So happy this is being brought up early in the series, and I imagine we’ll hear some more about climate change later on.

Abby: All signs point to that coming up more and more: the ominous unlabeled chamber in the memorial to mass extinctions, for one thing. And as an issue, climate change shares its curious status as established science stuck in a political battle with evolution. To me, it makes sense that Tyson would address these things head on — to identify the ways in which non-scientific questions and objections to, say, evolution, don't really contribute to our understanding of the world.

Danielle: I have to say that Tyson’s concessions to creationists ring a little false. Like you mentioned earlier, he’s saying that it’s natural for us to feel embarrassed by our relatives, like chimps, and that people who believe that humans are exceptional mammals just want to feel special. This seems especially hollow considering that later in the episode he offers with absolute certainty -- as he should -- that evolution should not be up for debate. He says:

Some claim that evolution is just a theory, as if it were merely an opinion. The theory of evolution -- like the theory of gravity -- is a scientific fact. Evolution really happened. Accepting our kinship with all life on Earth is not only solid science. In my view, it’s also a soaring spiritual experience.

I have a feeling religious watchers are not going to take too kindly to this, or to the representation of their beliefs as, basically, downright silly. Then again, Tyson's approach doesn’t fly in the face of all religious beliefs. His description of the tree of life and reference to a "spiritual experiences" brings to mind Eastern religions, were oneness is a tenet of belief.

Abby: I'm going to stand by what I said last week, that I am genuinely behind Cosmos's attempt to redraw the lines of opposition for debates on scientific subjects. In Tyson's world, religion and science are entirely compatible, and I like that. But this episode, focusing almost entirely on evolution, ups the difficulty level for that mission. My assumption is still that Tyson's rebuttals to common religious objections to evolution are directed not at the fundamentalist activists — like Ken Ham — promoting political opposition to biology education in schools, but at more mainstream religious audiences, who might be able to agree that there's an easy reconciliation between faith and evolution. Ham and his ilk aren't going to watch Cosmos and like it. But plenty of other Christians could.

I also think it's important to note that Tyson has preserved the space for speculative wonder opened up by Sagan. Take the Ship of the Imagination's visit to Titan's methane lakes — Tyson, maybe, sees something moving on the moon of Saturn. Was it life? We'll only know when real ships are able to return. This is the imagination at work, but an imagination informed by what evolutionary biology has told us about our own origins. Even this employment of the imagination serves as a rebuttal to anti-scientific advocacy: at one point, Tyson says that scientists aren't afraid of questions to which they don't (yet, perhaps) know the answer. The implication is that those who claim to have every answer are drawing some of those conclusions from fear or ignorance. That's a tricky point to make well, and we'll have to see how his attempt plays out.

Danielle: And then there’s the terrifying, mass extinctions part of the episode.

Abby: The Apocalypse! The book of Revelations! Of science, I guess.

Danielle: Forgive me if I avert my eyes during the historical apocalypses segment of the evening. But I do love the crazy resilient animals part — this tardigrade is so crazy! The tardigrade isn’t even the cockroach of the ocean, it’s the Twinkies of all living things.

But what did the Internet think?

Danielle: Like last week, people seemed pretty excited about Cosmos, and were especially vocal about Tyson's no-nonsense presentation of evolution as truth.

Notably  Carl Sagan's son weighed in, commenting on the last scene in the episode which showed a snippet of the original — something I hope continues to occur throughout the series: 

And though we didn't get any NASA tweets like last time, I enjoyed the tidbits (and quizzes) offered by the show's official handle, @COSMOSonTV:

Danielle: This is a super dense episode, and one that really highlights Tyson’s expertise as a teacher. Bears provide a much better example of genetic mutations than, oh, pea pods, for example, and his explanation of eyeball evolution appears to be comprehensive and is quite clear. He’s definitely more comfortable in this episode, and is possibly more comfortable on planet Earth. That makes sense, because a large part of Tyson’s charisma comes from his ability to communicate with lay people. He’s active (and funny) on Twitter and, per a recent New Yorker profile, once seriously considered paying for school by working as an exotic dancer. So he’s a people person.

Abby: Basically, everything about the evolutionary development of the human eye was a blind spot for me (sorry, sorry). I'm doubly happy to see that Cosmos took on this particular topic. First, because I learned something I didn't know, and second, because the human eye tends to be one of those things young earth creationists bring up to "prove" their point that a creator must have made the world as it is today.

Danielle: Also, I did not know that we are living in a paused ice age.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.