Cosmos Episode 2: Survival of the Friendliest

I am almost two weeks behind in my watching of and blogging about Cosmos. The second episode does a great job of introducing evolution, beginning with the shift from natural to artificial selection that turned wolves into dogs.

DNA is depicted visually in a way that some have not appreciated, but who knows what a molecule would “look like” from such a tiny perspective? It is referred to as the “ancient scriptures” of our species, and each living thing is likened to a little universe.

There is an emphasis on the fact that, while genetic mutations are random, natural selection is anything but. That evolution is not something that happens to individuals but species is also explained.

“No one can embarrass you like a relative” is a clever way of tackling our instinctive discomfort at the notion that we are related to apes. “The DNA doesn't lie” – it shows that we are distantly related to plants and not just animals.

Tyson tackles the design argument as it prevailed before Darwin, using the phrase “Intelligent Designer.” In focusing on the evolution of the eye, Tyson says, “In the beginning, life was blind.” The echo of Genesis is striking. The evidence that eyes evolved in water, and retain non-optimal features for out-of-water viewing. The eye is thus evidence for and not against evolution – it shows that nature is at work, and doesn't do what an intelligent designer would do, namely start over to create an optimal eye for land creatures.

Tyson responds directly to the nonsensical objections to evolution, calling an appreciation of our relatedness to other things a “soaring spiritual experience.” I love the way Tyson's face shows real emotion in response to the things he is supposed to be looking at, such as the massive extinction of the dinosaurs. Tyson speculates about what life on other worlds might be like, using Titan as an example.

The story of life on our world is called “the greatest story science has ever told.” Acknowledging that we do not know how life on Earth began, Tyson emphasizes that science works as the frontier between knowledge and ignorance, and that there is no shame in admitting when we do not know something – what is shameful is pretending we have all the answers when we don't.

The episode ends with a clip from Carl Sagan's Cosmos.

I really appreciate Tyson's use of religious phraseology to talk about the world as we know it with science's help. While some will view this as science encroaching on religion's turf and will respond with anger and fear, others of us see it differently. Science can be part of and a key contributor to a spiritual vision, rather than a competitor or opponent.

Have you been watching Cosmos? What are your thoughts about the second episode?




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  • Michael Wilson

    Im just on episode 2 myself. I really like the computer animation but I havent been hot on the cartoons. Unlike Sagan’s Cosmos, Dyson seems to be aimed at the cheap seats. It makes it a tad less enjoyable for me but I understand their reasoning. The cartoons, pleas to take evolution seriously and airing on Fox as opposed to PBS are all aimed at educating people that may not take time to read science magazines or paid much attention in science class. My girlfriend and I think a better narrator could have been found but I think part of the show was to make scientist look cool and not have science look cool because an actor is explaining it. I think for all the clowning Seth McFarland does, Comos is his attempt at a public service. He wants to teach science and establish a sense of wonder in science to the same crowd that likes fart jokes on familly guy, and I think its a noble effort.

  • Michael Wilson

    Regarding episode 2, I thought it did a great job expkaing evolution through the dog story and the evolution if the eye. The appeal to believe its a fact because he said so seemed redundent after the explanation. If the previous explenation didn’t convince you, the personal appeal Dyson probably wont help. I would have rather had some nat geo style filming of dogs in a tradtional society over the cartoon, as I said before, it is a lowpoint for me. On the animation of DNA, I liked it. Im not sure wgat the gripe is though. I figure that any depiction of structures at atomic scales would be fantasy because at that scale what we call seeing doesn’t work.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    The explanation of evolution was very well done. I liked how many creationist arguments were addressed without having to acknowledge that that’s what they were doing. And starting with the evolution of dogs and “survival of the friendliest” was a perfect way to undercut the perception of “fitness” as solely violent and off-putting.

  • Gunapie2

    Dogma (religions or otherwise) is a mental disease. That is a topic of the pseudo-science called psychology. Cosmos is Science for public consumption. Cosmos is a service to humanity. It is education and art. Those who have a religious agenda to push science out of the way in favor of fables are a fringe group of people who have been victimized by superstition and politics of greed and ignorance.

  • histrogeek

    I do appreciate that Tyson is limited by time, but I would have liked to see a bit on evolution outside the normal natural selection issue, specifically something on genetic drift and sexual selection. It just helps to show that evolution even in the natural world isn’t just about killing and starving.
    Also as a personal pet peeve, I’m never sure why natural selection gets the title of “best idea in the history of science.” I’ve seen that in a few places and I keep going, “Better than heliocentrism? Better than a mathematical explanation of all motion? Better than a calculable timeline for the earth? Better than a demonstrable start point for the known universe? Better than an explanation of inheritance? etc., etc.” I know it’s necessarily an opinion, but it seems weird to me.