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Cosmos with Cosmos Episode 2: One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue

In which we are connected to all living things

Posted by Casey Dreier

21-10-2013 21:41 CDT

Topics: fun, SETI


Cosmos with Cosmos is a weekly series that encourages people to get together and watch Cosmos with a cosmo(politan) or drink of your choice. We're posting weekly episode recaps and discussion through February of 2014. This series is made possible by members of the Planetary Society. If you like what you're reading, please consider joining the Society or donating $10 to help support projects like this in the future. To learn more about this series and find out how to watch Cosmos, see our introduction.


« Episode 1: The Shores
of the Cosmic Ocean
Episode 3: The Harmony
of the Worlds
»

In the second episode of Cosmos, “One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue,” we switch gears from the very big to the very small – from the cosmos to a microcosm. If the first episode was all about the origin of the universe and understanding our place within it, the second is about the origin of species and our place within the chaotic history of life on Earth.

It’s a natural progression, particularly for a show about the “interconnectedness of all things,” as Sagan explained in episode one. There is no more beautiful example than the shared molecular chemistry of life on Earth. That the processes of DNA replication and protein generation are the same in humans as they are in the smallest single-cell organism – and all directed by the same molecular code – remains a stunning insight of the modern era. We all share the same heritage. We all come from the same stuff.

That our society continues to rehash the same tired arguments against evolution more than thirty years after this episode first aired may have come to no surprise to Sagan. I personally find it the source of great sadness that one of the most astonishing discoveries in human history – the evolution of species through the means of natural selection – still faces such resistance. Not just because it’s a slap in the face to the progress inherent of the modern era, but because its denial means rejecting our place within all of known life. We are part of a dark and beautiful story of four billion years of survival against the odds, an unbroken chain that unites every living thing. It’s deeply compelling and strange and hopeful. And to deny that unity serves to isolate us all the more.

In what I imagine is an attempt to stamp out anti-evolutionary dissent. Sagan takes a stronger-than-usual tone in this episode. His language is less forgiving and more concrete, stating that “evolution is not a theory, it’s a fact. It really happened.” Which is, of course, true, but unfortunately portrays him as the authoritative scientist in an episode that, more than most, glosses over major unknowns and important caveats of the time in the name of impressing upon its viewers the validity of evolution.

I watched this episode with a few scientist friends of mine. One of them, who had never seen Cosmos before, felt unsettled afterwards.

“He presents to us a story of events without focusing on the uncertainties of the scientific reality,” they said (I’m paraphrasing), “It’s just replacing one authority figure for another. It’s not teaching people how to think critically.”

I hadn’t really thought about this before, but it’s an important point. Is the responsibility of the show to teach us how to think critically? Or is it to teach us facts about the cosmos? If it’s just teaching us facts, does its reliance on an authoritative narrator undermine the value of those facts? What’s to prevent a usurper – a faux-authority – from doing the same thing? How can we decide the veracity of either if we are meant to passively accept Sagan’s statements from his authoritative position as a Ph.D. scientist?

Generally, I think Sagan does a pretty good job of mentioning when he’s speculating, or when science doesn’t yet fully understand a topic, or that whatever he’s saying is only the best-understanding at the time. But it’s true, he’s not explicitly teaching his viewers how to think critically, though I’d argue that he provides us with more than enough examples of people who do. But this episode, since it’s dealing with a topic so often maliciously misrepresented, hammers home the fundamental correctness of evolution (note how Sagan walks us through the concept at least three times throughout the episode). We don’t always have the luxury of dealing in grey-areas or caveats when the larger concept itself is so poorly understood by the majority of the viewing audience.

And maybe, by presenting us with so many facts about evolution and other ideas throughout the series, people may use that as a starting point to increased skepticism and critical thinking. I feel that, a show meant for a large audience with perhaps a passing familiarity with science, that Cosmos needed to focus on facts first.

So Sagan does exploit his authority in this episode, but it’s a practical conceit. He happens to be correct, for the most part, though the show does contain a major error in one of its segments, as we’ll see.

The episode opens in the great expanse of space. Sagan and the SotI takes us on a tour through the great globs of organic matter that drift between the stars (a nice thematic call-back to our first episode). Not only do we learn that we are connected to all living things, but our very building blocks of our molecular chemistry can be found scattered throughout the galaxy. We are deeply connected to the cosmos itself, our chemistry binds us to the immensity in a way no human being had ever imagined before the modern era.

These menacing interstellar inkblots contain “the stuff of life,” and Sagan speculates that rudimentary life may be common throughout the cosmos, though perhaps intelligent life is only a small fraction of it. Some of you may recognize this concept as the Rare Earth hypothesis, which depressingly and effectively argues that life beyond basic microbes may be extremely rare, requiring far too many unlikely events to make intelligent life an expected outcome of evolution. While this does help explain the Fermi Paradox (the fact that the universe is so big and old yet we have found no signs of other intelligent life) it feels far too anthropocentric to me, relying entirely on our current, singular understanding of biology that, as Sagan points out, is extremely provincial. Our history is littered with discarded impossibilities based on our own desire to be unique and central to the functioning of the universe.

As in the first episode, we arrive back home at Earth – brilliantly blue in a sea of black – as we begin to approach our biology. And though our biologists are severely limited based on the singular basis of DNA behind all known life, we see such a diversity of forms most complex and most beautiful that I imagine they keep busy. But imagine, as Sagan does, one single alternative example of life. How revolutionary that would be.

I’ll have a lot more to say about the compelling nature the question of the existence of alien life and its centrality to the series as a whole in my Episode 12 recap, but suffice to say I can’t overstate the importance of Sagan’s willingness to speculate. It connects us to him as narrator, simultaneously validating our wandering thoughts and sharing in our excitement. It’s delightful, really.

As we arrive at Earth, we jump back in time to 12th-century Japan and the story of the Heike crab. These crab have an unusual carapace which looks not unlike the face of a scowling samurai. Sagan confidently declares that this is due to their artificial selection by centuries of Japanese fishermen honoring the legend of a vanquished clan of warriors. Crabs that had a small mutation in their genes that caused their shell to have a semblance to a human face would be thrown back to the waters. Those without that mutation would be eaten. Over the centuries, this artificial selection refined the shells of the crab to be distinctly human, all due to a unique historical legend.

The Heike Crab
The Heike Crab
Not a product of artificial selection.

The problem is that this is almost certainly wrong. It’s a great story, and artificial selection very clearly happens and has happened in many thousands of instances (see, for example, every fruit, vegetable, and animal domesticated by humans). The scowling face on the shell of the crab is more likely a case of pareidolia (our brain’s tendency to see faces in random patterns) than artificial selection, as persuasively argued by Dr. Joel Martin in a 1993 article in Terra [pdf]. I’ll let you read it, but his main two points are that (1) the fishermen don’t eat these crabs (they’re too small to bother with) and (2) you can find crabs with similar face-like markings all around Japan and Russia, far beyond the reach of the local legend of the Heike tribe.

This is the pitfall of Sagan’s choice to pursue a more heavy-handed style in this episode. How many people over the years believed this story of the crab based on Sagan’s authority? The irony, of course, is that this very confidence in his presentation of the Heike crab undermines the similar confidence he uses to state the facts of evolution, though evolution rests on considerably more evidence than the Heike crab story.

We move on, finding Sagan walking through a bucolic countryside, where he explains to us the general principles of artificial and then natural selection, and how it drives the diversification of species. The cosmic calendar is brought out again to help place our tiny selves within the great context of time, particularly within evolutionary time.

The centerpiece of the episode is clearly the animation of the unbroken chain of species that became humans. It is a brilliantly done piece with a lively performance of Bach’s Partita for Solo Violin No. 3 serving to illustrate the beautiful complexity our evolutionary history. Note the clever choice of a solo violin piece by a composer most famous for his fugues. Even musically we are reminded that we bear witness to a single voice in the music of life.

Also note the elegant visual device of using a single, unbroken outline to trace out the shapes of our genetic ancestors, from fish, to lizard, to a small mammalian rodent, then on to monkeys, ape-like creatures, and finally humans. It emphasizes the shared heritage and overall structural similarity with our related species.

We end with the evolutionary tree, as classically conceived by biologists, though I prefer Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of decimation and diversification as a depiction of evolutionary dead-ends and successes.

We are treated to speculations about the origins of life itself via the Frankenstein-like depiction of Bishun Khare’s lab at Cornell University. The Miller-Urey experiment, which demonstrated the general likelihood of early Earth’s physical conditions to create the building-blocks of DNA – nucleic acids – is nicely demonstrated, though it goes too far into the white-coated scientist in a lab full of beakers for my taste. I’m sure Khare and Sagan had fun with it (the Director clearly did), but for a show that’s introducing science to the public, I feel it traffics in a few too many cheap depictions of what science is, reinforcing old stereotypes within the minds of the viewer.

But the Milley-Urey experiment was about probing the origins of life – or, more accurately, heredity – which is still a mystery. As far as I could tell, there are a few more theories about where molecules first started to replicate themselves (near hydrothermal vents deep under the ocean or within porous minerals under the Earth’s crust) but nothing definitive. This is understandably a difficult problem, since anything that would exhibit these initial tendencies towards self-replication would immediately be consumed by established living creatures. There does seem to be evidence that RNA – not DNA – came first, and may be a closely related ancestor to the first self-replicating molecule. This is the RNA World hypothesis.

In a way, the origin of heredity may be like the origin of the Big Bang. There may be a point where science just can’t provide the tools necessary to unlock information shrouded in such deep time. The Big Bang is hidden behind the point in cosmic history where the universe was opaque to light (well, that and the general breakdown of known physics) just as the origin of heredity is opaque behind its violent consumption by subsequent life. Informed speculation may be the best we can hope for.

We find ourselves, as we did thirty years ago, the lone voice in the cosmic fugue. But, as this episode highlighted, we are still part of something bigger. That unbroken thread of evolution unites us in a fundamental way to every living thing around us. Just as we livings things are connected to the great clouds of organic material that float through the galaxy, but reconfigured in a more complex fashion. Just as the tone of a single note on an instrument is the sum total of thousands of distinct vibrations, so is our lone biology. Our cosmic voice harmonizes with itself in the absence of a second.

But fugues classically begin with a single voice stating the main theme. Maybe this is normal and additional voices will enter over time. Until then, we repeat our theme, waiting for the grand piece to continue on.

Science Updates

  • This episode is a great reminder about how recent our understanding of the demise of the Dinosaurs is. A mere 33 years ago they didn’t know about the asteroid impact that destroyed most of the life on Earth, including the dinosaurs, at the end of the Cretaceous.
  • Biology is not my strong subject, though I’m pretty sure some of the early ancestral links in the animation of our evolution are incorrect, at least up until fish. It is my understanding that this was pretty speculative back then.
  • The depth of understanding of how DNA replicates itself and creates proteins within the cell is far better known today. I found some great animations of this while I was doing research for this week’s piece. Do yourself a favor and watch how DNA replicates itself, and then how it transcribes messenger RNA and makes a protein.
  • Did you catch how Sagan mentioned life on what they assume to be many other planets orbiting other stars. The confirmation of exoplanets is something we take for granted now, but is extremely new, the first discovery came about 20 years ago.

Stray Observations

  • I didn’t get to discuss this much in the main writeup, but the concept of a cosmic fugue is fundamentally optimistic. Fugues are arrangements of multiple voices which all echoing a similar theme. They reflect the theme in strange ways, but they are deeply connected to that single concept and work together in a complex way to creating a pleasing sound. I prefer this interpretation of life than constant warring factions of civilizations.
  • Dr. Bishun Khare collaborated with Carl Sagan on over 100 papers and passed away in 2013.
  • Another theme of interconnectedness in this episode: the somewhat symbiotic relationship between plants and animals, each one using each other’s waste gasses as a key component to their metabolism.

Quotes

  • “Without the tools of science, the machinery of life would be invisible.”
  • “We are each of us a multitude.”
  • “We need the plants more than they need us.”
  • Possibly my favorite dramatic line-reading from the series: “Others produced colonies, with inside and outside cells performing different functions, becoming... a polyp.”
« Episode 1: The Shores
of the Cosmic Ocean
Episode 3: The Harmony
of the Worlds
»
 
See other posts from October 2013

 

Or read more blog entries about: fun, SETI

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