TV Review: Cosmos, Episode 2

(I’ve decided to review the new Cosmos series hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson that’s airing on Fox. I haven’t reviewed the first episode yet, but I’ll return to it later. If you missed it, you can stream full episodes online.)

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Episode 2, “Some of the Things That Molecules Do”

If I had to pick one word to describe this episode, it’d be “overstuffed”. Granted, the series has a huge amount of territory to cover; and unlike the original Cosmos, which aired on PBS, this one is subject to the ever-growing commercial demands of Fox, giving it just 44 minutes of television in an hourlong slot. Even so, it seemed to be straining at the seams to fit in every story it wanted to tell.

The episode starts out with the story of how humans turned wolves into the many different breeds of dogs, an example of the power of selection that even creationists don’t deny. (As further evidence of the plasticity of nature, here’s another of my favorite examples of artificial selection: broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, collard greens and Brussels sprouts are all domesticated versions of the same wild species, Brassica oleracea.)

We’re shown a montage of how the eye evolved in Cambrian seas, from a simple light-sensitive spot to a true pinhole-camera eye with a lens, refuting creationist claims of how “half an eye” would be useless. This sequence did a good job showing the selective advantage of each step, although the split-screen presentation – one side showing the physical changes wrought by natural selection, the other showing what the world looked like through those evolving eyes – was a good idea in principle but strained my attention trying to keep up with it. (We also briefly glimpsed one of my favorite Cambrian animals, the weird and fearsome Anomalocaris.)

The straightforward, no-nonsense explanation of how evolution works was very good, and I loved the Tree of Life – a visual metaphor in the form of a gigantic tree whose branches are adorned with representatives of all the species that have ever lived. That said, I thought the Fantastic Voyage-esque trip into the DNA of a polar bear, where Tyson’s spaceship shrunk down to molecular size to show a mutation in progress, was done more for the cool factor than because it added anything to the science. The animation showing the selective advantage of white fur would have sufficed.

But I loved the “Halls of Extinction”, a sepulchral pyramid whose corridors open onto rooms that show past mass extinctions on Earth. I’d gladly watch a spinoff about this place, and since Tyson conspicuously called attention to one hallway that was unmarked, I presume the series will revisit it later. (I assume the unlabeled corridor was the human-caused mass extinction that’s currently in progress.) I was a little surprised by the unambiguous presentation of the Permian-Triassic extinction as caused by volcanism, something I thought was still a topic of active debate among scientists.

The other high point was Tyson’s trip to Saturn’s moon Titan: its icy shorelines, its methane and ethane rains, and a submarine voyage into the largest of the frigid moon’s hydrocarbon seas, the Kraken Mare (and how awesome is that name?), ending with a tantalizing speculation about whether strange life may lurk down in the depths, using chemistry unknown on Earth. This was a place where the improved special effects really shine, helping viewers visualize something they probably couldn’t picture otherwise.

Since this new series has gone out of its way to pay tribute to Carl Sagan, I’m surprised that the episode didn’t mention one of his most important scientific contributions: his discovery that the orange haze which shrouds Titan is made up of tholins, complex organic molecules that are produced in the upper atmosphere by lightning and ultraviolet radiation and fall to the surface like snow. Again, time constraints may have been a factor here, but I think that would have been a more fitting ending than the one they did go with, the animation of humanity’s evolution from the original Cosmos. It was a not-unwelcome bit of nostalgia, but it could have been trimmed for a tighter focus on the truly striking visuals and ideas this episode presented.

Image credit: Sailing the seas of Titan, via COSMOS photo gallery

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Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Pofarmer

    Enjoying this episode very much.

  • Pofarmer

    I enjoyed how they went through evolution of temperment in wolves and dogs, which, in my view, gives a clear analog to evolution of morality in humans.

  • Austin Green

    It’s pretty much settled that the Siberian Traps volcanic episode tipped off the Permian/Triassic mass extinction event.

  • Chip

    I think the “cool factor” stuff can be forgiven as a way to draw in the layman who’s never given much thought to science.

    One thing I’m getting a kick out of is the show’s repeated subtle pokes at creationists, with stuff like (paraphrasing), “There’s a lot we don’t know, and that’s okay; the only shame is in pretending you have all the answers.” Even the choice of the eye to demonstrate evolution was great in that regard, since the eye’s complexity is a favorite of the Intelligent Design crowd.

  • http://buddy2blogger.blogspot.com/ Buddy2Blogger

    A great episode and I look forward to the rest of the series as well.

    B2B.

  • Loren Petrich

    Looks like a good discussion of how artificial and natural selection work, and one that avoids the Heike-crab silliness of the original Cosmos. That seems to me too much like pareidolia.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    (As further evidence of the plasticity of nature, here’s another of my
    favorite examples of artificial selection: broccoli, cauliflower, kale,
    cabbage, collard greens and Brussels sprouts are all domesticated
    versions of the same wild species, Brassica oleracea.)

    You forgot Brusselkale.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    But what tipped off the Siberian Traps?
    Was it…. Aliens?

  • Tommykey69

    It was God’s anger over same sex marriage.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    I’ll confess, I don’t readily see the analogy. Can you explain?

  • Patrick James Bayham

    it was an evolutionary trait forced onto a creature thru human pareidolia.

  • RoverSerton

    Sadly, I haven’t seen the show yet. My assumption is, A wolf hanging around humans was a benefit, unless it bit a member of the tribe. It would be killed, but the remaining wolfs that didn’t bite were kept. Kind of like the Lions in Africa now, the ones that attack the jeep safari are killed, the ones that take good pictures are left alone.
    Humans that hurt the tribe were killed or expelled, making for a more humane/moral/civil of the remainders. To paraphrase, don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

    Just watched it, pretty much the way I figured the dog/wolf evolution.

  • http://teethofthebuzzsaw.blogspot.com/ Leo Buzalsky

    I think I see where they are going.
    The dogs had to learn to get along (cooperate) with humans in order to receive benefits.
    I’m not actually sure if it would be that good of an analogy. The problem is that the dogs didn’t have to fully cooperate with humans to receive benefits; they perhaps could have just snuck around our ancestors to get what they needed as the point made in the show was that the dogs just needed to be less fearful. Not that they needed to be cooperative.
    That said, the cooperative part seems to be…well, just that. Humans deciding to make use of dogs and dogs agreeing to take part. What that does go to show is that there is indeed additional reward in cooperation. Whereas a lot of religious people make these outrageous claims that, if it were not for their god telling them what to do, they’d lie, cheat, and steal thinking that would be most beneficial. And this dog example does go to show that that concept is just bunk.

  • Jeff C

    Also, he referred to evolution as “The Greatest Story Science Ever Told,” a not-so-subtle nod to the story of Jesus as “The Greatest Story Ever Told”.


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